Why I Am Against the Arizona Immigration Law: “Your Papers Please”

By Kenneth Cohen
Special to News From Indian Country June 2010

On Wednesday May 5, 2010 Boulder, Colorado City Manager Jane Brautigam ordered all department directors to cancel travel plans to Arizona for Boulder city business or conferences. She explained that her action was a demonstration of opposition to Arizona’s new SB 1070 2010 Immigration Law, which allows law enforcement to ask for proof of immigration status “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.” Brautigam explained that this law “is contrary to our organization’s commitment to diversity and is a violation of our core values.” I support her stand against injustice.

Anyone who has served on a jury knows how easy it is to demonstrate or create reasonable suspicion or doubt. An officer can use almost any excuse to act on personal prejudice. Although I am confident that most Arizona police officers are men and women of honor—indeed some have already protested against SB 1070, it only takes a few misguided people to make trouble for many. As a Jew, the new law smacks of Deine Papiere, Bitte! “Show me your papers,” common during the Nazi era. The connection is not surprising, considering the history of the bill. SB 1070 was proposed by Arizona State Representative Russell Pearce (Mesa-Republican), notorious for an October 2006 email, sent to his supporters, that included an article written by the National Alliance, a neo-Nazi white supremacist group. The article accused the media of trying to create “a world in which every voice proclaims the equality of the races, the inerrant nature of the Jewish, quote, ‘Holocaust‘ tale, the wickedness of attempting to halt the flood of nonwhite aliens pouring across the borders.” Pearce later claimed ignorance of the full content of the email and apologized for it.

Though Pearce proposed the Bill, it was actually written by Kris Kobach, an attorney for the Immigration Reform Law Institute, a branch of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR was founded in 1979 by John Tanton, described by the Southern Poverty Law Center as “the racist architect of the modern anti-immigration movement,” who in a letter written in 1996 wonders “whether the minorities who are going to inherit California…can run an advanced society?” From 1985-1994 FAIR received $1.3 million in funding from the Pioneer Fund, which since 1937 has promoted eugenics to encourage the genes and traits of those “descended predominantly from white persons.”

In response to an article published in Boulder’s Daily Camera newspaper on May 7 (“Boulder Leaders Get An Earful for Stand Against Arizona” <http://www.dailycamera.com/ci_15041835?IADID=Search-www.dailycamera.com-www.dailycamera.com#axzz0nRlHir8f>http://www.dailycamera.com/ci_15041835?IADID=Search-www.dailycamera.com-www.dailycamera.com#axzz0nRlHir8f ), various emails question why Colorado should “get involved in another state’s business.” I suggest that every state should be involved in this business, as it violates the fourth and fourteenth amendments of the U.S. Constitution. People of color, including Mexicans and Native Americans, are often especially aware of and sensitive to these amendments. The fourth guarantees the security of “persons” and “papers” against unreasonable searches and seizures and requires warrants to search a person or property. The fourteenth guarantees “equal protection of the laws” and denies “any State” the right to “deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.” SB 1070 is a hindrance to sorely needed federal immigration reform and tougher, more intelligent laws against drug trafficking.

To add insult to injury an email published by the Daily Camera claims that the Arizona law is not racist because “Hispanics and Mexicans are Caucasians and part of the White race.” Geneticists have proven otherwise with regards to Mexicans, who have an average of 52% Native American ancestry. This should be obvious to anyone who is not color blind. Unfortunately the U.S. Census considers Hispanic, Mexican, or Latino as categories of culture and ethnicity but does not list them under racial categories. Forced to fit into a racial box, in the Year 2000 Census 48% of Latinos self-identified as white, 42% as “some other race.” Because of this grid, created by demographic scholars, Mexicans find it difficult to publicly proclaim their extraordinarily rich cultural (ethnic) and genetic (racial) heritage.

A prominent businessman from Colorado Springs (two hours south of Boulder) writes that even though he is a University of Colorado, Boulder alumni, he will no longer visit the city. In an emotionally charged response, Boulder City Councilman Macon Cowles wonders where the white people working in Colorado Springs “get the lettuce for their salads.” This is very much to the point. Mexicans, like most U.S. citizens’ European ancestors, come/came to the U.S. for better economic and social conditions. Legal or illegal, many work the fields, grow and harvest the lettuce in border regions such as California’s Imperial Valley, but are often treated and paid unfairly. Go into any large supermarket in the U.S. and you will find lettuce, broccoli, cantaloupes, cauliflower, carrots, corn, honeydews, onions, spinach, and watermelons grown by Mexican farm-workers employed by predominantly white farmers in Southern California. While Boulder residents complain of pesticide residue on food, many Mexicans are forced to breathe, touch, and eat these deadly poisons on a daily basis. Mexicans contribute disproportionately to the U.S. economy without reaping its full rewards.

Finally, I am surprised that, until very recently, mainstream media discourse had rarely included Arizona Bill 2281, which Governor Jan Brewer signed into law on May 11. It should be considered a package with SB 1070. Provisions of this law ban public schools from offering classes that

  • Promote the overthrow of the U.S. government
  • Promote resentment toward a race or class of people
  • Are designed primarily for pupils of a particular ethnic group
  • Advocate ethnic solidarity instead of treating pupils as individuals.

The law effectively bans or creates major obstacles to all ethnic studies courses. The law was written to target and prohibit ethnic, especially Mexican-American, studies in Tucson public schools, programs that are open to all students, regardless of race. Of course, Mexican Americans should be especially interested in this program, as would African Americans in an African-American history course, or Native Americans in Native American history, or Jews in holocaust studies. And while no teacher should promote or tolerate racial resentment, it is unavoidable that individual students may sense “ethnic solidarity” or feel ashamed, shocked, and outraged at the treatment of various peoples during the course of colonial and U.S. history. These are facts we simply have to deal with. Bill 2281 only protects ignorance.

The moral implications of SB 2281 have not gone unnoticed internationally. On May 10, the day before it was passed, the United Nations Human Rights Commission issued a statement in Geneva criticizing Arizona for a “disturbing pattern of legislative activity hostile to ethnic minorities and immigrants.”  The statement warns, “The law may lead to detaining and subjecting to interrogation persons primarily on the basis of their perceived ethnic characteristics…In Arizona, persons who appear to be of Mexican, Latin American, or indigenous origin are especially at risk of being targeted under the law.” The authors of the statement include human rights experts from Kenya, Pakistan, Costa Rica, Mexico, and the U.S., including S. James Anaya, a professor of law at the University of Arizona in Tucson.

I wonder if Boulder residents would have had as many negative reactions to the city government travel ban if the new immigration law or Bill 2281 had been passed in Alabama instead of Arizona? Alabama is not our neighbor, and because of the history of civil rights, many people still stereotype southeastern states as “racist.” Now, I love Arizona. Even saying the word brings images of the Grand Canyon, Saguaro studded deserts, Anasazi ruins, galleries and museums in Flagstaff, eccentric friends in Quartzite, and Hopi dancers on magnificent mesas. But please remember that the state government does have a history of, what seems to me, to be racist decisions. Before Arizona Governor Evan Mecham was impeached and removed from office in 1988, he refused to recognize Martin Luther King Day, an action that was originally supported and defended by Senator John McCain. Mecham also defended the use of the term “pickaninny” to describe African American children. In 1990, Arizonans voted to continue non-observance of MLK Day. After a tourist and Super Bowl boycott, the holiday was finally approved in 1992.

Considering this record and the implications of Bills 1070 and 2281, many people in Arizona are also angry—including the mayor of Phoenix, the Tucson City Council, and the Flagstaff City Council—all of which voted to sue the state. I am proud that officials in Boulder, Colorado have had the courage to offer their support. These new laws violate not Boulder values but American values.

Kenneth Cohen, health educator and award-winning author, and his wife Griselda Alvarez Sesma, Professor at Arizona Western College, live part of the year in Colorado and spend the winters visiting their family in the Imperial Valley region of California.

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