Saturday, May 29, 2010

Local Activists Denounce Arizona Immigration Law

International Socialists, May 1 Coalition Host Meeting


Copyright © 2010 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved

PHOTO, left to right: Lei-Chala Wilson, Estela de los Rios, Mar Cardenas

“It’s about racism, not immigration,” Estela de los Rios of the Center for Social Advocacy in El Cajon said at a May 27 meeting in City Heights discussing — and denouncing — SB 1070, Arizona’s recent law requiring law enforcement officers to demand proof of legal U.S. residency when they encounter people based on “reasonable suspicion” that they are here without documents. The meeting was held as a kickoff to a caravan of about 110 people who were scheduled to leave from San Diego on May 28 to go to Arizona and spend the three-day weekend joining in public protests against the law. All six featured speakers — de los Rios; Lei-Chala Wilson, president of the San Diego chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP); Mar Cardenas, director of South Bay ministries for the Unitarian-Universalist Church; Myrna Cruz and Gelina Sandoval of the May 1 Coalition; and Tony Perez of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) — proudly announced their intention to go to Arizona and continue the struggle against SB 1070.

“It’s about hate,” de los Rios said, attributing the passage of SB 1070 not to a grass-roots movement among Arizonians but the anti-immigration organization FAIR (Foundation for American Immigration Reform) and anti-immigration Congressmembers like Brian Bilbray and Duncan Hunter, Sr. and Jr. of San Diego County and James Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin. She recalled her history of activism on immigrant rights, including opposition to the 1986 Simpson-Mazzoli bill (which ironically is currently damned by anti-immigration activists on the Right, who say it gave “amnesty” to the estimated 3 million undocumented immigrants already in the U.S. then and allegedly encouraged more to come) as well as participation in the “marcha,” the huge immigrant-rights demonstration in Washington, D.C. on May Day, 2006. This year, de los Rios said, she joined the May Day march in Los Angeles and “we couldn’t see the end” of the march line from the middle of it.

De los Rios said the violence directed against her and her organization began with an interview she gave local newscaster Michael Chen on April 26, right after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law. “I said this is racial profiling, neo-Nazi and Gestapo tactics; it’s hate, and it’s targeting only Latinos,” de los Rios recalled. “That aired around 6, and at 6:40 one of my compaƱeras was working at the office when this guy with blue eyes and a bald head put his face to the window and said, ‘I know who you are and I’m going to kill you, bitch.’ She called 911 and they said, ‘Lock your door and wait for us.’ She said he looked like the poster boy for the Aryan Brotherhood” — which, de los Rios explained, brought back bad memories because years before, her staff member “had been shot at and grazed by an Aryan Brotherhood member in Chicago.”

Three days later, de los Rios said, the harassment against her and her group intensified. “I got graffiti’d, and it said ‘Bitch’ in big letters,” she recalled. “We called the police and they said it was probably gang-related.” She said the police refused to see a connection between the graffiti and the earlier harassment even though the use of the word “bitch” in both convinced her they were tied together. Three days after that, de los Rios said, she got a call from one of her employees that someone had broken the windows of their office and taken her computer and all her personal information. De los Rios was convinced that the police were deliberately stalling and putting her off because she had already angered local officials, including the mayor of Santee, for holding a “hate-crimes summit” in East County, and that her race was also a factor. “If I’d been white,” she said, “the police investigation would already have started.”

“We believe the immigrant rights struggle is a civil rights struggle,” Lei-Chala Wilson said, tying the cause of immigrants into the NAACP’s historic mission to secure equality for African-Americans. “SB 1070 is a modern Jim Crow law. Years ago, my people had to carry papers to prove that we were free, not slaves.” Wilson argued against SB 1070 not only because immigration enforcement should be the task of the federal government, not individual states, but also because it “will be one of the most racially targeted laws in modern times. … This law will lead to racial profiling.”

The question of whether SB 1070 can be enforced in a race-neutral way or will be used to target Latinos is one of the most explosive issues raised by the new law. The Arizona legislature passed a last-minute amendment, section 5D, which says, “A law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state may not consider race, color or national origin in the enforcement of this [law] except to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution.”

But those last words — “to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution” — constitute a huge loophole, according to University of Arizona law professor Gabriel “Jack” Chin. Chin’s analysis — available online, along with the full text of SB 1070, at — notes that the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1975, in a case called United States v. Brignoni-Ponce (422 U.S. 873, 886-887), that “the likelihood that any given person of Mexican ancestry is an alien [immigrant] is high enough to make Mexican appearance a relevant factor” in immigration law enforcement. Likewise, the Arizona Supreme Court ruled in 1982, in State v. Graciano (653 P.2d 683, 687 n.7), that “enforcement of immigration laws often involves a relevant consideration of ethnic factors.”

Chin’s analysis contains some caveats. He points out that most of the cases allowing racial profiling to be used to form “reasonable suspicion” — the standard in SB 1070 — that someone is an undocumented immigrant have involved U.S. Border Patrol agents, not local police or other law enforcement officers who have other tasks besides apprehending suspected undocumented immigrants. What’s more, in Southern California, the Ninth Circuit of the U.S. Court of Appeals — sitting en banc, which means that all the justices on the court participated in the decision instead of just a three-judge panel — held in a 2000 case called United States v. Montero-Camargo that there are so many people of Mexican ancestry in the Southwest — U.S.-born citizens, naturalized citizens, documented immigrants and tourists — that mere racial appearance can no longer be used to suspect someone of being an undocumented immigrant. Nonetheless, unless and until the U.S. Supreme Court adopts the Montero-Camargo case as the law of the land, Arizona police and sheriff’s deputies can use SB 1070 to stop Latinos and claim they’re within the law because the Brignoni-Ponce case specifically holds that such racial profiling is constitutional.

Wilson’s presentation also pointed to HB 2281, a law passed by the Arizona legislature immediately after SB 1070, which banned the teaching of ethnic studies in Arizona’s schools. She offered this as proof that the Arizona state government is not targeting undocumented immigrants, but Latinos in general. “All this hate of late is happening for three reasons,” Wilson explained. “Some want to divide and conquer, and so they find wedge issues: race, religion and sexual orientation. Also, any time you have a bad economy, they need to have someone to blame. If it weren’t Latinos, it would be Blacks. The third issue is we have the first Black President, and a lot of people don’t want that. My President was duly elected and didn’t cheat.” She finished her presentation by announcing that the NAACP has joined the nationwide boycott of Arizona, will not host any events there and is urging Major League Baseball to move the 2011 All-Star Game, scheduled for Phoenix.

“I have lived in Santee since I got back from serving in Desert Storm [in 1991],” Mar Cardenas said. She got hit with anti-Latino prejudice in an unusual way; she met her German-American husband in the service and wasn’t bothered as long as she used his last name — “My neighbors didn’t realize I was Mexican,” she explained — but after meeting Enrique Morones, long-time immigrant-rights activist and founder of the Border Angels, which provides food, water and blankets to people crossing the desert from Mexico to the U.S., she decided to get active. That included using her birth name and essentially “coming out” as Latina — and when she did that, she recalled, “my property was vandalized by my neighbors, and when we confronted them, they said, ‘We just don’t want Santee to start looking like Tijuana.’”

After the fence around her home kept getting pulled down in the middle of the night, Cardenas went to the police — and found the same lack of interest de los Rios complained about more recently when her office was first vandalized and then burglarized. She tried to report the fence incidents as hate crimes and, Cardenas recalled, “they said I hadn’t been shot, my house hadn’t been burned down, so it wasn’t a hate crime.” Cardenas and her husband eventually sued in court and won, but never recovered their legal fees.

“I decided to work to change things,” Cardenas recalled. “Enrique and I went on the marcha together. The Unitarian-Universalist Church in Hillcrest found out and asked me to come on board for their social justice program, and I was delighted because it’s been my life’s work to speak for the voiceless. I’ve been working for equality all my life. My daughter just came out of the closet as a Lesbian, though I was supportive of that community even before that.”

Cardenas recalled that she herself came to the U.S. as an undocumented immigrant and stayed in a marriage to an abusive husband — “he was very violent, and a drug addict” — for a year and a half because, as a “new arrival” who “didn’t speak English well enough to go to the police,” she felt helpless. When she finally divorced him, she recalled, “I didn’t want to go back to Mexico,” at least partly because she had a baby son there whom she didn’t want to bring to the U.S. until she could get him in legally. “So I went in the Navy, and that’s where I met my second husband,” she recalled.

Myrna Cruz of the Colectivo Zapata and the May 1 Coalition — which sponsored a May Day demonstration this year in San Diego that drew about 4,000 people — said SB 1070 is “a racist bill, and if it could happen there, it can happen anywhere. Why should the bill allow police officers to target people of color just because of the color of their skin? Why should we let the police criminalize employers who offer jobs to undocumented workers?” (A little-known provision of SB 1070 makes it illegal either to solicit work as a day laborer or to hire one if they do so in a car that “blocks or impedes the normal movement of traffic.”)

“We work for the people,” said her colleague, Gelina Sandoval. “We want to work with the pueblo and the raza. We stand against the law and also work with the people collectively to fight it. Undocumented people fear the migra [the Border Patrol and Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE], fear the police. They don’t do anything because they are afraid they will be expelled and lose their families. We want to educate people on what they can do to fight this law within families and communities.” Sandoval said she’s part of a family of four, “and I’m the only one with proper documents. My family was denied documents and we have to wait until next year [to apply again]. My younger sister is 17 and might have to go to Mexico to finish high school.”

Tony Perez, the final speaker, represented the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the principal sponsor of the meeting (the May 1 Coalition was a co-sponsor, but it was held at the ISO’s usual venue on their usual day). “Arizona police were already targeting and deporting people before SB 1070,” he said. “This just makes it legal. Now they’ve banned ethnic studies, and Obama is sending 1,200 National Guard troops to the border. But there is also resistance.” According to Perez, the immigrant rights movement went off on the wrong track backing 2006, when it turned out millions of people in the streets nationwide but didn’t take a strong position for immediate legalization of all undocumented immigrants.

“The slogan in 2006-2007 was, ‘Today we march, tomorrow we vote,’” Perez recalled. “We found out voting didn’t work. We need to demand the overturning of SB 1070 and legalization without conditions.” Instead, he explained, the movement split between total legalization and so-called “comprehensive immigration reform,” which as it’s evolved in Congress has meant stricter enforcement on the border against new immigrants, a guest-worker program similar to the bracero program from 1942 to 1964, and a punitive “path to citizenship” for the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants currently here that gets more onerous with each revision of the proposal. Perez quoted Latino activist Nativo Lopez as saying we should “fight for the perfect,” arguing that if immigrant rights activists accept “comprehensive immigration reform” instead of demanding legalization without preconditions, that in itself “pulls the debate to the Right.”

At least two audience members questioned the panelists about how to deal with the public perception of undocumented immigrants as “illegals” whose very presence on U.S. soil makes them criminals and therefore appropriate targets for law enforcement. “Just because something is the law doesn’t mean it is just,” Wilson said. “It was once against the law in this country for slaves to learn to read [or for people to teach them to read], and even after the slaves were freed it was against the law for people of different races to marry.” (Actually virtually all the laws against interracial marriage prohibited it only if one of the parties was white — a fact cited by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1967 as establishing the racist intent of those laws when they found them unconstitutional.)

“How do you define ‘illegal’? No human being is illegal,” de los Rios said. “There’s a lot of discussion about status. It’s about human rights rather than laws. Just because they want the right to discriminate, Latinos are the new slaves. We’re the new scapegoats for everything, including foreclosures. What do we do about the borders? It’s not Left or Right, it’s a human issue. People are sacrificing their lives to come here.”

Cardenas pointed out that the U.S. had no restrictions on immigration at all until they were enacted in 1924. “Recent immigrants are breaking an existing law by doing the same things people that came here generations before did,” she said. “The only difference is back then there wasn’t a law.”

Surprisingly for a meeting co-sponsored by a socialist organization, none of the panel members brought up the economic basis of immigration from Mexico to the U.S. and specifically the effect of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). That was left to audience members in the post-panel discussion. Author and ISO activist Justin Akers said that in the last 30 years the U.S. government has concentrated on adding “security” to the border while the system for allowing people to enter as documented immigrants hasn’t changed at all. “The only thing they have done is more enforcement,” Akers said.

Akers argued that the U.S. government knew that NAFTA was going to destroy Mexico’s agricultural economy by allowing U.S. agribusiness corporations to “dump” U.S.-grown corn on the Mexican market and sell it for less than it cost Mexican farmers to produce it. That’s why in 1994, the year NAFTA took effect, a Democratic President and Congress launched “Operation Gatekeeper” and other similar high-tech enforcement programs at the major urban border crossings to deter undocumented immigration, Akers argued. But, he added, the enforcement programs didn’t stop immigrants from making the journey; what they did is force them to take more dangerous routes through the desert and risk their lives. “It’s not in the discussion that 7,000 people have died trying to cross the border” since 1994, Akers said. (Other immigrant-rights activists, including Enrique Morones, say the number of immigrants who have died since 1994 is 10,000.)

Like his ISO comrades, Avery Dennison criticized more moderate immigrant-rights activists for trusting the political system in general, and the Democratic party in particular, to come up with a just solution. “The protests in 2006 stopped the Sensenbrenner law, and the Latino vote did help the Democrats regain control of Congress, but that has not added up to any progress whatsoever,” he said. “Recently, three undocumented workers occupied John McCain’s Senate office. This is a reflection of the level of frustration. This is happening in the middle of a recession, so whatever side presents itself as a solution to the recession wins.”

In their closing statements, de los Rios called for a united movement of African-Americans, Latinos and Queers to work together in solidarity, and Cardenas pointed out that not all law enforcement officers support SB 1070. “The law assumes that all police officers want to do racial profiling,” Cardenas said. “The truth is that they’re being mandated to do it whether they want to or not. Not everyone in law enforcement thinks this is the right way to deal with the issue.” Nor does every local government in Arizona agree with the law; the city councils in Flagstaff and Nogales have both passed resolutions opposing SB 1070, which has split the immigrant-rights movement over whether to call for a boycott of the entire state of Arizona or steer tourists to cities like those that have come out against the law.

The meeting ended with a discussion of the logistics behind the caravan, which are even more complicated than usual because of the decision of the organizers not to spend any money whatsoever in Arizona. As a result, all food, water and other supplies had to be brought from California — so the organizers were asking not only for money but direct contributions of food and water so they could provision themselves for the trip without having to buy anything in Arizona.