Arizona’s war on immigrants

December 10, 2009

Eric Ruder explains what the Department of Homeland Security's move against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio will mean for immigrants.

JOE ARPAIO, the zealous anti-immigrant sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., has finally suffered a setback in his crusade to humiliate, demonize and terrorize undocumented workers under his jurisdiction.

After receiving thousands of complaints and initiating a civil rights investigation by the Justice Department, the Obama administration stripped Arpaio and his deputies of their power to enforce federal immigration laws.

For the last two years, Maricopa County sheriffs have been authorized, under an agreement with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS), to check the immigration status of people they suspect are undocumented when enforcing compliance with traffic laws or making arrests for any other reason.

The Obama administration's decision to allow this policy to continue came under criticism from immigrant advocacy organizations. "The Department of Homeland Security is making a historic mistake if it continues its relationship with Sheriff Joe Arpaio," said Paco Fabian, a spokesperson for America's Voice. "The federal government is lending its full force and legitimacy to a rogue cop certain to go down in history as a serial violator of civil rights and an enemy of the Latino community."

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Arpaio's many transgressions of the civil rights of immigrants include jailing undocumented workers in tent cities in Arizona's brutal summer heat, cutting the cost of food for inmates under his control to 20 cents per day, forcing men to wear pink prison garb and putting women on chain gangs.

After DHS announced that it was rescinding his authorization to check immigration status, Arpaio held a press conference and lashed out at federal officials, calling them "liars" and pledging to continue his crusade using state laws. And he promised to personally drive undocumented workers to the border and deport them if federal authorities refuse to take them into custody.

WHILE THE DHS action is welcome, Arizona has a host of laws and regulations that drive undocumented workers in the state into the shadows.

On November 24, for example, a new law went into effect requiring state, city and government employees in Arizona to report any undocumented immigrant who requests a public benefit. Government workers who fail to make such a report could face up to four months in jail. And under the terms of the law, if any taxpayer feels that the law is not being properly enforced, they have the right to file suit against a city or state agency.

The law has created widespread fear in the Latino community. "When it comes to my daughter's health, I won't play," said José, an undocumented worker whose daughter is a U.S. citizen and is currently getting treatment for a liver transplant. "I'll take her to the doctor. But I feel between a rock and a hard place. If I get deported, then how am I going to care for her?"

As journalist Valeria Fernández wrote, "Jazmin, an undocumented mother, hasn't taken her son--again, a U.S. citizen--to see the doctor in three days because she fears she could be deported. She's also afraid of sharing her identity because she thinks immigration authorities might come after her since she has a pending application to renew the state health care insurance of her child."

In early December, the Arizona Supreme Court dismissed a lawsuit filed by the Arizona League of Cities and Towns that asked for the law to be stayed--leaving churches, pro-immigration attorneys and other advocacy groups scrambling to use the Spanish-language media to offer advice to people in José's and Jazmin's situations before tragedy strikes.

The war on migrants crossing into the U.S. through the harsh deserts of Arizona also continues. Predator drones--the same unmanned surveillance aircraft used by the U.S. military in the skies over Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan--patrol the border between Mexico and Arizona (as well as Texas and California).

Recently, Walt Staton, an activist who works with the border rights group No More Deaths, was sentenced to 300 hours of community service picking up trash and one year of probation for the "crime" of leaving plastic jugs filled with water along the hundreds of miles of trails used by border crossers.

Apparently unaware of the irony, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service argued that the plastic jugs left for immigrants endanger wildlife--even though thousands of border crossers have died from dehydration and heat exposure trying to cross into the U.S., the majority in the area where Staton was leaving water bottles.

THE OBAMA administration pledged to lead the way in passing comprehensive immigration reform in 2010, but the decision by DHS to take away Arpaio's authority to enforce federal immigration laws shouldn't be understood as proof of the administration's commitment to the cause.

In announcing the general outlines of the administration's position on immigration reform in November, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano argued for a "three-legged stool" approach--tougher enforcement laws against undocumented workers and employers who hire them, a streamlined system for legal immigration into the U.S., and a "tough and fair pathway to earned legal status" for undocumented workers already here.

The emphasis on enforcement shouldn't come as a surprise for those who know Napolitano. In a Los Angeles Times opinion piece, Jeffrey Kaye wrote:

Napolitano's attitudes toward immigration have hardened over the years. First elected governor [of Arizona] in 2002 with support from the Latino electorate, she opposed a 2004 Arizona ballot measure that sought to bar illegal immigrants from receiving some public social services.

The following year, voicing skepticism about the effectiveness of Bush administration plans to improve fences at the border, she famously proclaimed, "You show me a 50-foot wall, and I'll show you a 51-foot ladder." However, since becoming chief of the Homeland Security Department, the agency responsible for the border fence, she has promised to complete the unfinished portions and has stepped up immigration audits of employers.

Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) has signaled that he plans to move immigration reform rapidly through the Senate--in part by demonstrating that Democrats are serious about enforcement of anti-immigrant laws. According to Kaye:

Schumer, who as chairman of the Senate's immigration subcommittee will take a lead role in drafting legislation, has said that a bipartisan immigration bill is doomed "if my colleagues on the other side of the aisle do not believe that Democrats are serious about enforcement." Schumer even denounced use of the term "undocumented workers," suggesting that it conveys legitimacy and signals that the government "is not serious about combating illegal immigration."

Napolitano also boasted recently that "more than 111,000 criminal aliens" were identified through a fingerprinting program called Secure Communities--even though 95 percent of these "criminals" were guilty of nothing more than traffic violations and expired visas. According to a New York Times editorial:

It is easy to understand that the administration wants to sound as tough as possible as it gets ready to battle deep-seated resistance to real immigration reform...That makes it all the more important for the administration to avoid conflating illegal immigration and serious crime. Laws must be enforced, but doing it this way hurts the innocent, creating a short line from Hispanic to immigrant to illegal to criminal.

Having brown skin, speaking Spanish, seeming nervous in the presence of flashing police lights--none of those things say anything about whether you are here illegally or not, are deportable or not. But any one of them can be enough to get you pulled over in jurisdictions across the country.

As on other issues like health care reform and the war on Afghanistan, the Obama administration has refused to stand with majority sentiment in favor of real change to U.S. immigration laws.

In 2007, just after the defeat of the Bush administration's immigration bill, 63 percent told Pew Research Center that they favored legislation that would provide a "pathway to citizenship," and today, despite tough economic times, the same proportion still favors this "pathway to citizenship."

"Even when the provision was described as 'amnesty,' a majority still supported it [in 2007]--though by a smaller margin of 54 percent to 39 percent," according to the Pew Poll.

How much more support for amnesty would there be if Obama and the Democrats would only make a coherent case for amnesty in order increase this already solid base?

Actions against anti-immigrant bigots such as Arpaio are refreshing to see. Recently, a group of about 100 students heckled Arpaio during an appearance at Arizona State University, forcing him to leave the stage 45 minutes into the event.

But we will also have to put pressure on Obama and the Democrats to demand full amnesty for all undocumented workers if Washington begins talk of new immigration legislation.

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