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MIGRATION-US: “You’re a Criminal Just Because You’re Brown-Skinned”

IPS Correspondents*

PHOENIX, Arizona, Apr 28 2010 (IPS) - Critics of Arizona’s new immigration law, which requires police to question people they suspect to be undocumented immigrants, say “reasonable suspicion” boils down to having brown skin and looking Latino.

Sixteen-year-old Guatemalan migrant heading to the US. Credit: Wilfredo Díaz/IPS

Sixteen-year-old Guatemalan migrant heading to the US. Credit: Wilfredo Díaz/IPS

The law, known as S.B. 1070 or the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighbourhood Act”, signed Friday by the Republican governor of the southwestern state, Jan Brewer, makes it a crime to be in the state illegally and allows state police to question and arrest people without a warrant if there is “reasonable suspicion” about their immigration status.

“Looking Latino” would apply, for example, to 31-year-old Shirley, originally from the southern Mexican state of Guerrero. She has been living in the United States for more than 12 years, but has now explained to her daughter that they may have to leave the country.

“Mamá, if we go to Mexico, we won’t have anything there,” her daughter told her. “You brought me here when I was little, and I don’t know anything about life there.”

She “is our main concern; we want her to go to the university and have a profession, but if we have to go, we don’t know what will happen,” Shirley told IPS.

The Mexican government doesn’t know what is going to happen either — just as it has not known for the past decade, despite the fact that there are at least 10 million Mexicans living and working in the U.S., including 6.5 million undocumented immigrants, according to the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

“We are taking action, and we will continue to do so,” Mexican President Felipe Calderón said.

So far, Mexico’s foreign ministry has posted a travel alert for “all Mexicans visiting, living, or studying in the state of Arizona.” The ministry urged Mexican nationals to carry their documents with them at all times in Arizona, where there will be a “negative political environment” for Mexican visitors and migrants.

But “much more effective efforts and better diplomacy are needed,” Amanda González, head of migration issues at the Citizen’s Initiative for the Promotion of Culture and Dialogue, a Mexican civil society group, told IPS. “It is a question of understanding the dynamics of how we could influence policy-making in the United States.”

In its weekly newspaper “Desde la Fe”, the Mexican Catholic Church especially lashed out at Mexico’s foreign ministry, demanding “more intense and effective efforts” to curb the “abuses” committed against Mexican immigrants in the U.S.

At least since 2000, when Calderón’s predecessor Vicente Fox took office, Mexico has been waiting for Washington to make good on its promise for a broad, in-depth debate on immigration reform. In the meantime, fences along the border have gone up at a fast pace, along with deportations, cuts in social services and more and more restrictive policies.

Even if the U.S. Congress discusses immigration reform this year, Mexico would not be free of its worst nightmare: that the new law in Arizona will set the tone around the country.

Calderón’s stance “is ‘we don’t want to annoy them’,” activist María García, of the Chicago-based Movimiento Binacional por la Esperanza (Binational Movement for Hope), told IPS. “There should be bilateral measures, but based on serious agreements.”

When he meets in May with U.S. President Barack Obama, Calderón will have a chance to show what position he plans to take.

In Phoenix, the state capital of Arizona, there are also many people thinking about what they plan to do — but in terms of how they will survive without being arrested, thrown into jail and deported.

For starters, “we won’t call the police anymore, even if we need them,” Griselda, 38, remarked to IPS. “Everything is fear now, with this new law.”

Others are simply thinking of leaving.

“In our community many people are thinking of moving away,” said Antonio Velázquez, 35, who is originally from the town of Ixchiguán in southwest Guatemala.

Velázquez’s phone rang off the hook all day Monday. “One of the main questions is: can I drive people to work?” said the representative of Maya Chapín, a community organisation that brings together more than 20,000 Guatemalans in Phoenix.

The question is not an idle one: SB 1070 also makes it a crime to transport undocumented immigrants.

“Many are saying it’s better for us to leave, because they don’t want us here and they’re slamming the doors shut,” Velázquez said.

“It’s sad that the Republicans are doing these things and that they don’t stop to think that immigrants have sweated so that they themselves have food on their table,” he added.

According to a report by the University of Arizona’s Udall Centre for Studies in Public Policy, immigrant workers in the state generated about 44 billion dollars, or 12 percent of Arizona’s economic output, in 2004.

The state’s 35,100 Latino-owned businesses had sales and receipts of 4.3 billion dollars and employed over 39,300 people in 2002, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s Survey of Business Owners.

But it’s not about money — or is it? In Velázquez’s view, the state authorities “simply see immigrants as extraterrestrials.”

In Guatemala, the sense of indignation is being voiced in protests and marches. “Xenophobic” and “racist” are the terms most often heard to describe the new law.

“It criminalises migration and foments xenophobia, discrimination, hatred, racism and persecution of immigrants,” Marila de Prinz, executive secretary of the Mesa Nacional para las Migraciones en Guatemala (National Forum on Migration in Guatemala – MENAMIG), told IPS.

The activist announced that a mass protest was being organised for Saturday, May 1, which is celebrated as International Workers’ Day around the world, but not in the U.S.

“The governor is ignoring her conscience,” Víctor Hugo Herrera, who was himself deported from the United States, told IPS in the Guatemalan capital. “The only thing people are doing there is working and struggling honestly.”

That’s what he was doing at the Agriprocessors meat packing plant in Postville, a small town in the midwestern U.S. state of Iowa. That is, until he was arrested and put in jail for four months along with 388 other immigrants accused of using false Social Security numbers, before he was deported in October 2008.

Two weeks ago he found work as a farmhand in Guatemala, earning four dollars a day. “The situation here is really tough,” he complained. But he added that “I wouldn’t go back to the United States illegally.”

A total of 7,433 Guatemalans have been deported from the United States by plane so far this year, and 27,222 were deported last year, according to Guatemala’s Directorate General of Immigration.

The Arizona law applies to anyone whose appearance gives rise to “reasonable suspicion.”

“They consider you a criminal just because you are brown-skinned,” María Alanis, a 41-year-old U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico, told IPS in Phoenix.

For that reason, “this is the worst day in the history of immigrants in this country,” Alanis said Friday, Apr. 23, when Governor Brewer signed the bill into law.

“And I don’t know if they’ve forgotten about history, but this state is one of immigrants,” she added. Of the 6.5 million people in the state, 1.3 million are foreign-born.

But while she spoke of a sense of “impotence,” she also said she felt “the courage to keep forging ahead, to keep fighting, because we have to beat this. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

* With reporting by Danilo Valladares (Guatemala City), Emilio Godoy (Mexico City) and Valeria Fernández (Phoenix, Arizona).

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