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Arizona at Epicentre of Divisive U.S. Immigration Debate

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, Apr 21 2010 (IPS) - Protests and acts of civil disobedience are taking place in the southwest U.S. state of Arizona as it becomes the main battleground in a divisive struggle over illegal immigration.

Students chained themelves to the Arizona capitol building doors that lead into the governors tower to protest the bill. Credit:

Students chained themelves to the Arizona capitol building doors that lead into the governors tower to protest the bill. Credit:

New legislation, which was sent to the governor on Monday and is awaiting her action, represents the culmination of a decade-long attempt by conservative Republicans to restrict the migration of people over the U.S.-Mexico border into Arizona.

Known as the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighbourhood Act”, the bill includes a number of provisions that go beyond authorising the arrest of undocumented immigrants on “reasonable suspicion”. It targets day labourers by making it a crime to look for work on the street, and would fine anyone who harbours or transports an undocumented immigrant, including family members.

Passage of the bill has sparked protests, rallies and phone calls to Republican Governor Jan Brewer urging her to veto it.

On Tuesday, nine students were arrested on charges of disorderly conduct after they chained themselves to the entrance doors of the capitol building in an act of civil disobedience against the proposed law. Authorities arrested them as soon as they said they wouldn’t leave until the governor took action on the law.

Meanwhile, a broad coalition of civil rights groups, businesses and religious leaders representing Arizona and other states delivered 50,000 signatures calling on Brewer to veto the legislation.

“It’s unfair, unjust, and pre-empted by federal law and unconstitutional,” said Eliseo Medina, president of the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). He called the bill an “unfunded mandate” that would strain police resources by forcing them to play the role of immigration authorities.

Critics argue the bill will bankrupt the state by subjecting police departments to lawsuits for engaging in racial profiling or for not enforcing the law. Currently, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose agency has been engaged in immigration sweeps on Latino neighbourhoods, faces lawsuits and an investigation by the Justice Department over civil rights violations.

“Do we want to force all police chiefs and sheriffs to follow Joe Arpaio’s lead?” said Mary Rose Wilcox of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. “The bill’s intent is to enforce immigration laws through attrition. It seeks to make life miserable for immigrants and their families so they would self-deport. It is literally designed to terrorise immigrants.”

She said that it could also end up in arrests of Latino U.S. citizens based on the colour of their skin.

The city of Tucson was also the site of a number of protests. Early Tuesday afternoon, hundreds of people gathered outside the state government complex where the governor has her offices.

“We are planning to stay here until she vetoes or signs it,” said Angel Sanchez, 26.

Among the bill’s opponents are the National Day Labourer Organising Network, the Valley Interfaith Project, the Border Action Network and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

The ACLU is contemplating filing a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the bill, which delves into an area of law traditionally in the hands of the federal government.

Meanwhile, immigrant communities in Arizona are in shock. The announcement of an immigration sweep by Sheriff Arpaio and a recent large-scale enforcement action against smuggling networks by the federal government has increased community distrust in the local police.

“There’s immeasurable fear due to this law, it’s a cruel law,” said Pastor José Morales from the church Iglesia Impacto de Fe. “I wish the governor would step out of her desk and go to the schools and the community to see the terrible fear our children have, wondering when [authorities] are going to catch their parents, and in the hands of whom they’ll stay.”

Supporters argue that the absence of federal immigration enforcement has left the state to take matters into its own hands.

State Senator Russell Pearce, author of the bill, believes the government is “complacent” toward illegal immigration and his proposal would “take off the handcuffs of local enforcement” by allowing them to arrest people who are in the state illegally.

Pearce maintains that undocumented immigrants are draining Arizona’s education and healthcare resources, and taking the jobs of U.S. citizens.

“Even though the numbers of illegals have dropped in Arizona, there’s a rise in actual percentage of criminal illegals, those that have plead guilty to crimes in Arizona,” said Paul Babeu, president of the Arizona Sheriffs’ Association, and a supporter of the legislation.

What was a local debate has taken centre-stage in the U.S., with human rights groups coming to Arizona to denounce the legislation, and an uproar from the other side of the border as well.

Authorities in the neighbouring Mexican state of Sonora said that Arizona would become an unsafe place for Mexican tourists and others who cross the border daily to do business or go shopping.

“Arizona is no longer a safe place for them to go, because the police will stop you on the streets for not carry (sic) proper documentation,” said the president of the Sonora Congress, Eloisa Flores Garcia.

On Monday, Arizona’s federal Senators John McCain and Jon Kyl announced a 10-point plan that includes the deployment of 3,000 National Guard troops to the Arizona border. McCain, who had been an advocate for immigration reform, including legalisation, voiced his support for the Arizona bill.

On May 1, several groups are planning national marches and protests for immigrants’ rights. The Arizona bill could fuel the ire of people frustrated with the unfulfilled promises of immigration reform by the Barack Obama administration, but it could also inspire others states to follow suit and approve restrictive measures, said attorney Isabel Garcia, from the Coalición Derechos Humanos, a Tucson group that defends human rights.

“This country is not the American Dream, it has turned into a nightmare. And this country denies that, by proclaiming itself as the most just country in the world when it comes to human rights, while we realise here (in Arizona) that is quite the contrary,” she added.

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