Death and Demagogues

Looking back at a tough year for immigration-reform efforts

Well, good afternoon, everyone," Gov. Jan Brewer said to her Phoenix audience on April 23. "And thank you all for being here today to join me as we take another step forward in protecting the state of Arizona."

With that, the governor sat down, reached for a pen and signed Senate Bill 1070 into law—thus launching the latest rancorous salvo in the already-vicious immigration wars.

Sponsored by State Sen. Russell Pearce, a Republican hard-liner from Mesa, the measure requires police to run immigration status checks, and makes it a state crime to be in Arizona without proper immigration documents.

Pearce's measure sparked an immediate and furious outcry in Phoenix, Mexico and even in Los Angeles, where Cardinal Roger Mahony compared it to Nazism. It also drew legal fire: Arguing that the SB 1070 impeded federal laws and policies, the U.S. Justice Department filed suit to have it squashed. On July 28—one day before the law was to go into effect—District Court Judge Susan Bolton blocked key parts from being enforced. Nonetheless, Pearce's initial triumph has resulted in a flurry of activity, as the nexus of immigration action shifts from Washington, D.C., to statehouses around the nation.

Last year also saw the latest rise and fall of a congressional bill known as the DREAM Act. First introduced in 2001 under bipartisan sponsorship, and most recently revived this past September, it would offer legal residency to undocumented immigrants if they attend college or join the military. Seen as the last, best chance for any immigration reform in 2011, it was passed by the lame-duck U.S. House of Representatives on Dec. 8, only to be sandbagged by a GOP filibuster in the Senate. Arizona Republican Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain both voted against the measure—despite the fact that both formerly supported the idea, and McCain had even co-sponsored an earlier version of the Dream Act.

President Barack Obama, meanwhile, is under intense pressure to achieve some sort of reform. But even as the White House broadcasts pro-reform rhetoric, the administration has perpetuated many get-tough programs begun under President George W. Bush, from beefing up federal forces on the border to expanding scrutiny of businesses believed to hire illegal immigrants—albeit with a new twist: the high-profile workplace raids of the Bush era have been replaced by federal agents probing the employment records of suspected companies.

To Dan Millis, an activist with the Tucson-based No More Deaths immigrant-assistance group, it's all more of the same overzealous, security-driven approach that had him facing littering charges two years ago, for placing water jugs on migrant trails within the Buenos Aires National Wildlife Refuge southwest of Tucson.

"I think the myth people subscribe to is, in order to get reform, it needs to come with more enforcement," he says. "That's why you're seeing a Democratic administration deport more people than ever before, and increase the amount of agents and infrastructure, technology and money being deployed along the border."

Without reform, burgeoning security measures will only trigger more suffering by border-crossers caught in the squeeze play, Millis says. "It means things are going to get worse before they get better."

He ranks 2010 as among the deadliest years on record. "This last year, our volunteers found three bodies. We're seeing fewer people crossing, but we're finding more of them dead."

Others applaud the growing crackdowns, particularly those led by state governments. For Bob Dane, a spokesman for the restrictionist Federation for American Immigration Reform in Washington, D.C., SB 1070 is merely a good start. "Arizona had a huge problem," he says. "They decided to do something about it, because the federal government wasn't. Arizona represents what's possible legislatively, legally, from a grassroots viewpoint. It's really the focal point for this tension, which is going to work itself out between the state and federal roles."

That federal role is actually retreating, says Dane, in what he calls a "systematic dismantling" of immigration enforcement within the interior United States, "except for all but the most hardened criminal aliens. I think the Obama administration learned quickly that they didn't want to waste political capital on a mass-amnesty bill, so they resorted to nudging (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) to shift detention and deportation priorities."

In fiscal year 2008 alone, ICE deported more than 340,000 immigrants. But again, tactics have changed: While many undocumented workers discovered in "silent" workplace bookkeeping raids are usually fired, they are generally not deported.

Any deportation lapse may indeed compel more states to implement their own versions of SB 1070, says Wendy Sefsaf, of the Immigration Policy Center, also based in Washington. That would amplify an already-existing trend: In 2008 alone, state legislatures enacted 206 immigration-related laws.

Nonetheless, Sefsaf says, the outcome of state legislation in hardly a foregone conclusion—particularly if progressive lawmakers counter with measures that would, for example, provide tuition equity and worksite protections for immigrants. "Still, some states are going to go the way of Arizona, and be very punitive. And you'll see Arizona try to make it difficult to get birth certificates for the (U.S.-born) children of the undocumented.

"I think you're going to see that in a dozen other states. The only good it does is continue to send a message to the federal government that, if you don't fix it, we will. It could be messy and expensive, and lots of litigation will follow. But there's going to be action."

As that drama unfolds, we might be wise to gain a global perspective, says Erik Lee, associate director of the North American Center for Transborder Studies at Arizona State University. Lee recently returned from an international conference in The Hague, Netherlands, where the topic concerned immigration impacts across the planet, as poor people abandon Third World countries in search of opportunity.

The take-home message? America is hardly alone in grappling with this formidable challenge.

Immigration politics in other countries are strikingly similar to what we witness right here at home. "You see a lot of these center-right parties come to power, particularly in the Netherlands, talking about non-integration" of immigrants, says Lee. "We're very isolated here in Arizona, but we actually are right on trend in terms of other countries dealing with immigration."

As in other countries, our immigration angst is ripe for demagoguery. "It's a very complex, confusing issue," he says, "and it's tailor-made for politicians to spin six ways from Sunday."

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