The Battle of Arizona: A Prelude to the Future?

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By Robert Saleem Holbrook

The state of Arizona has become Ground Zero in the national debate over the status of undocumented persons in the United States and more importantly, their contribution to the changing racial and ethnic demographics of the United States. The passage of SB 1070, the Arizona Bill that would legalize racial profiling and subject persons of color to invasions of their privacy and unconstitutional detention was the first shot in this battle. Fortunately this racist bill, which hearkens back to the days of Jim Crow laws, was essentially struck down and gutted by a federal judge on July 28, 2010 who found its provisions unconstitutional.

Opponents of the bill celebrated this victory; however the proponents and sponsors of the bills remain undeterred and have appealed the decision to the Circuit Court. In addition, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self proclaimed toughest sheriff in the United States, announced his deputies would continue to detain and question people they stop about their legal status in the United States. Arpaio has decided to circumvent the federal judge’s decision by conducting sweeps for undocumented persons under the guise of “Crime Sweeps” in the areas under his jurisdiction. Under these so-called crime sweeps Arpaio’s deputies dress up as storm troopers and harass and detain people for petty violations, often traffic violations, then question them on their legal status in the United States. Undocumented persons who are caught up in these sweeps are detained and handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) for deportation proceedings. The police involved in these sweeps are specifically targeting people who possess Latino characteristics.

What is being lost in this debate is the way the political Right has caused so-called crime prevention measures to legitimize policies that violate people’s civil rights under the U.S. Constitution as well as people’s inherent human rights. Also, no one wants to call out these anti-immigrant/undocumented persons bills that are gaining momentum in border states and many Southern states for what they are, and that is ethnic cleansing under the guise of crime prevention and illegal immigrant reform. Arizona is just the proving ground for a concerted effort by right wing conservatives to diminish and arrest, through legislative means, the changing racial and ethnic demographics of the country. This is the true backdrop the anti-immigrant debate should be viewed against. It is a push to cleanse states of Latino populations that threaten to overtake white majority populations in the border states.

Minorities, in particular Blacks and Latinos, are increasing in population in many states conservatives once had a complete lock on. Latinos are the fastest growing minority in the United States. These minority communities are becoming key swing voters for the Democratic Party. The narrow and racist conservatism practiced by the base of the Republican Party is overwhelmingly rejected by minority communities who, while not sold on the Democratic Party, at least are welcome within its tent. The right wing base of the Republican Party has come to recognize people of color as people of the opposition. Make no mistake about it, this is all about politics, and not protecting “our” borders – in the border states (Arizona and Texas) that are embracing these anti-immigrant bills. Whites in these states are the majority, but Latinos are fast on their heels to overtake them as the majority. Latinos are the fastest growing ethnic group in Southern states like Georgia, Virginia and the Carolinas. To people who hold a narrow vision of the United States and equate being American with being white or somehow exceptional the reality that in the coming decades the United States will no longer have a white majority is frightening and depressing. It is this fear and resentment at the loss of white entitlement that the right wing has been exploiting in galvanizing support for their anti-immigrant bills.

The fear of crime is a trump card that is frequently exploited in American politics by both parties. However the extreme right has perfected it as a wedge issue and an issue that appeals to people’s perceived or actual fears. In Arizona the right has effectively framed the debate over undocumented persons as a criminal issue by using false statistics and blaming undocumented persons for an increase in crime in Arizona. During a television interview, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio claimed undocumented persons have caused Arizona’s crime rate to skyrocket the past three years; however this lie was busted in another television interview by Tucson Arizona Police Chief Roberto Villasenor who stated that the statistics show that violent crime is actually down in Arizona. By coincidence, the only county in Arizona where crime has not fallen is in the so-called toughest Sheriff in America’s jurisdiction, Sheriff Arpaio’s own Maricopa, Pine County has the highest rate of crime in the state.  

The proponents of Arizona’s anti-immigrant bill clearly stated that their intent was to drive undocumented persons out of the state, either through police measures such as detention and deportation by ICEE or by undocumented persons “self-deporting.” Sheriff Arpaio’s storm trooper deputies in Arizona are not stopping blond hair and blue eyed people and questioning whether they are undocumented persons from Germany or Sweden. They are targeting brown skinned persons of Latino descent and inquiring if they are citizens of the United States. This is clearly racial profiling an dshould a Latino citizens feel insulted by this intrusion into his privacy and ethnicity and refuse to answer the question, he or she will be detained by the police until their legal status or identity can be confirmed by the police. You see, in the United States, a civilian cannot refuse a question posed by the police, if you are minding your business and a cop walks up to you and demands to see your ‘identification’ (your papers, please) and you decide you’ve done nothing to warrant this intrusion and refuse to provide it you can be legally detained until your identity is determined, regardless of whether or not there was probably cause or suspicious behavior. Thank the War on Drugs for that one.

The lesson the right has learned through beating back the gains of Blacks made during the civil rights movement is if you want to deprive a person of their constitutional rights and eliminate the gains made by an ethnic group, label them a criminal and associate crime with an ethnic group. The war on drugs was used by the right to associate crime and drugs with Black youth (later Latino youth) to appeal to white voters who felt threatened by perceived out of control crime rates. The right is at it again, this time using the perceived criminality of undocumented persons as a means to justify the ethnic cleansing of Latino populations from states that are in danger of losing white majority populations. Of course, no one wants to call it ethnic cleansing; even many opponents of the anti-immigration bill because we don’t do that in the United States. Yet when you specifically target and associate an anti-immigrant bill with an ethnicity, in this case Latinos, to achieve a political end, it doesn’t matter if the means are labeled crime sweeps, anti-immigrant measures or protecting our borders; when it comes to the intended end result (the exodus of Latinos) it is still ethnic cleansing.

Even more foreboding, several right wing U.S. senators have been circulating the idea to amend the 14th amendment to the Constitution that guarantees U.S. citizenship to all persons born on the soil of the United States. These Senators want to amend it so that children of undocumented persons born in the United States will be denied citizenship based on the “illegal” status of their parents. Again, with Latino being the majority of undocumented persons in the U.S. and constituting the fastest growing minority this measure is clearly racially motivated. When Europeans were the largest ethnic group of undocumented persons the idea to amend the U.S. Constitution, which is held as sacred to many, was never considered. The reason being undocumented Europeans looked like and resembled culturally the white majority. They didn’t represent a threat to the status quo. A majority of minorities threatens the cultural, social and political fabric of the United States and this is a scenario white cultural conservatives don’t want to see happen. Stripping children of undocumented persons of their citizenship would be another step in attempting to prevent the inevitable.

I say inevitable because the right will not be successful in preventing the demise of the white majority in this country. In the coming decades minorities will overtake whites as the majority population regardless of what tactics the right pursues. However, having a majority does not guarantee the political power or the ability to change the empire’s course and this is something the right is well familiar with. By disenfranchising black communities through the criminal justice system and War on Drugs and ethnically cleansing and criminalizing Latino communities using anti-immigration sweeps under the guise of crime prevention measures, the right hopes to maintain their grip on power and influence by imposing a right wing, white, minority rule. This is the real danger of policies and bills that target minority communities and strip them of their civil and human rights. It strips them of a voice in the political and social process and renders them civilly dead. It opens the door for them to be hunted down, detained and deported by a state that doesn’t want the status quo threatened and will use whatever means necessary in pursuit of its ends.

~ Robert Saleem Holbrook, 8.08.10