The battle heats up in Arizona

Eric Ruder reports from Arizona on the eve of a big protest against anti-immigrant laws.

May Day demonstration for immigrant rights San Francisco (Josh On | SW)May Day demonstration for immigrant rights San Francisco (Josh On | SW)

THE SUMMER heat is descending on Arizona, driving temperatures into the triple digits, just as tens of thousands of people are making their way to Phoenix for a march to the capitol building to condemn the passage of the state's racial profiling law, known as SB 1070.

The law, which makes it a crime not to carry immigration papers and gives sweeping powers to local police to detain anyone they suspect of being undocumented, represents a renewed effort to criminalize immigrants, stoke racist hatred and legitimize the broad use of racial profiling.

Immigrant rights activists--with support from political figures such as Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.)--have launched a Boycott Arizona campaign. The right-wing Tea Partiers have countered with a "buycott" campaign.

This weekend, tens of thousands will march in Phoenix and around the country as part of a national day of action against SB 1070--and no doubt the Tea Partiers and others will mobilize here and elsewhere in defense of bigotry.

In this and other settings, the debate over immigration is playing out with an intensity not seen in years--and the stakes only seem to be getting higher.

Three weeks to the day after SB 1070 was signed into law, Sandra Soto, a professor of Latino studies at the University of Arizona, spoke at the commencement ceremony for graduates of the school's Social and Behavioral Sciences program.

The first three-quarters of Soto's speech stuck to typical themes about taking classroom knowledge out into the world and using critical thinking throughout life. Then, Soto specifically addressed the recent passage of SB 1070.

She did little more than describe what its effects would be: "The new Arizona law generally known as SB 1070 is considered the strictest anti-immigrant legislation in the country and is explicitly intended to drive undocumented immigrants out of the state. One reason it has instigated a boycott is because to a whole lot of people, myself included, it appears to not only invite but require the police to engage in racial profiling."

Soto's words were barely audible over the boos and hisses that erupted from the audience (as a YouTube video shows). Soto has since received hundreds of hateful e-mails, some of which threaten violence.

On a larger stage, San Francisco and Los Angeles are just two of the biggest cities that have officially approved a boycott of Arizona. In response, the Arizona Corporation Commission, which oversees the state's utility system, wrote a letter to LA Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa threatening to withhold the 25 percent of LA's electricity supply that is generated in Arizona.

It seems unlikely that this anything more than a threat made for public relations purposes, but the lines are clearly hardening--and they extend far beyond Arizona's borders.

According to the New York Times, "In the first three months of this year, legislators in 45 states introduced 1,180 bills and resolutions relating to immigration; 107 laws have passed, compared with 222 in all of 2009, according to the National Conference of State Legislators." In other words, if Arizona's assault on immigrants goes unchallenged, we are witnessing the beginning of an ominous national trend.

Consider the case of Eduardo Caraballo, a U.S. citizen born in Puerto Rico, who in late May spent three days in detention on suspicion of being undocumented. Caraballo was arrested in Berwyn, Ill., and despite making bail and producing his birth certificate, federal immigration authorities refused to believe that he was a U.S. citizen. Only after Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.) intervened was Caraballo released.

The violation of Caraballo's civil rights is a cautionary tale about the consequences of giving local law enforcement powers to enforce federal immigration law.

"Because of the way I look--I have Mexican features--they pretty much assumed that my papers were fake," explained Caraballo. "I never thought I'd be in this position where I'm being told I am not a citizen...Hopefully, this is going to change, because there are citizens who don't speak English, and they got it a lot worse. At least I had my mother to help me out."

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BARACK OBAMA was quick to criticize Arizona's racial profiling law, saying that it threatens "to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans."

But in what has become typical fashion for his administration, Obama this week announced that he would send up to 1,200 National Guard troops to the Southwest and allocate an additional $500 million in funding to assist Customs and Border Protection with border security.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer predictably hailed the announcement as a vindication of SB 1070. "I am pleased that President Obama has now, apparently, agreed that our nation must secure the border to address rampant border violence and illegal immigration without other preconditions, such as passage of 'comprehensive immigration reform,'" she said.

The 1,200 troops are unlikely to have much of an impact along the 1,969-mile border separating the U.S. and Mexico--for his part, George W. Bush sent 6,000 Guardsmen--but the political intent of Obama's maneuver was unmistakable.

The administration could easily defang SB 1070 by instructing Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) not to share its federal database on immigration status with Arizona, or accept detainees from local Arizona law enforcement, as a New York Times editorial recently suggested.

Instead, Obama is offering to send troops, legitimating Arizona's anti-immigrant offensive and conceding to the right wing's hysteria about the "lack of resources" to enforce "border security" against "dangerous criminal elements."

Never mind that it is migrant workers and their families who will be the target of Arizona's legislation, which moves enforcement from the border to the cities and will put enforcement of federal immigration laws in the hands of every local cop in the state of Arizona, from Nogales to Fredonia.

This doesn't inspire confidence in a state that had to be pressured to adopt Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday as a holiday and that, despite the furor over SB 1070's passage, followed up with a law banning ethnic studies in the state's public schools.

What does inspire hope, however, is the fact that--like during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s--students and young people are flocking to participate in a new movement to repeal SB 1070 and other laws that sanction racial profiling, hate and those "basic notions of fairness" that Obama refers to, but doesn't act on.

This weekend, immigrant rights activists from around the country are mobilizing for a national day of action on Saturday, and tens of thousands will march in the belly of the beast--Phoenix. On Friday, there will be a human rights festival in Phoenix, and on Sunday an organizing conference.

These are the greens shoots of a struggle that is desperately needed to choke off the weeds of anti-immigrant racism--here and across the U.S.