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A Proud Spirit of Defiance in Arizona ( 0) Printer friendly page Print This
By Eric Ruder
Socialist Worker
Tuesday, Jun 1, 2010

FROM EVERY corner of the U.S., people streamed into Phoenix this past weekend to be part of a May 29 national day of action to protest the passage of Arizona's anti-immigrant SB 1070, which enshrines racial profiling into state law.

As the 8 a.m. gathering time for the march approached, the desert flowed with a river of humanity--young and old; brown, black and white; gay and straight--carrying water bottles and sunscreen, and infused with a proud spirit of defiance.

The marchers shared a sense that they were making history, standing together under the fierce sun to send a simple message: we will not be silent in the face of injustice. On sign after sign, the same slogan could be seen: "We are human."

Many mainstream media reports described the marchers as numbering in the "thousands," but any honest estimate would put the crowd at more than 50,000. The marchers stretched out over at least half of the five-mile route.

There were in large contingents representing labor unions, students, religious groups and immigrant rights coalitions from California, Texas and many other states. But most of all, there were thousands upon thousands of immigrant families marching together, defying the climate of fear SB 1070 has already generated to walk through the streets of Phoenix where, on other days, they face the threat of racial profiling.

It took more than an hour-and-a-half for everyone with the energy to to arrive at the grounds of the state capitol for the final rally--where speaker after speaker spoke of the need to oppose SB 1070 as just one aspect of standing up for the rights of immigrant workers everywhere.

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Friday, May 28

Tucson, Southside Presbyterian Church, 10:30 a.m.

For many years, the Coalición de Derechos Humanos (Human Rights Coalition) has been fighting against the militarization of the border and human rights abuses by federal, state and local authorities.

The day before the mass march in Phoenix, the coaltion organized a small but spirited teach-in about SB 1070, featuring a presentation by Marc Miller, a professor of law at the University of Arizona, followed by a trip to the federal courthouse where border crossers are herded through the U.S. legal system.

After lunch, Isabel García, co-chair of Derechos Humanos, a lawyer and longstanding activist for immigrant rights, explained how SB 1070 as well as many other laws have turned Arizona into a "laboratory."

"The federal government has funneled everybody through the state of Arizona, and Arizona then became the fertile ground for all of this to take root," says García. She was talking about how the notorious Operation Gatekeeper made border crossings near the urban areas of San Diego and El Paso, Texas, all but impossible. Instead, migrants now must cross through remote areas--in particular, the arid Arizona desert, where every year, dozens upon dozens perish during the 30- or 40-mile hike.

Unlike in Texas, "the federal government owns nearly all of the border land [in Arizona]," explains García. "They closed up the traditional crossing areas of migrants for 100 years, knowing that the chaos and division at the border wouldn't result in the kind of fightback it sparked in Texas."

She continued:

Texas is a very conservative state, but as soon as [Bush's director of Homeland Security Michael] Chertoff started building walls there, the communities came unglued. Lawsuits by white and brown and black alike, government officials, sheriffs--everybody came unglued, and they knew that wouldn't happen in Arizona.

Arizona was already a conservative state, but during the last 10 years, we were the fastest-growing state in the U.S., and not because of migrants, but because of the influx of retirees, which means older, more conservative people.

Arizona's boom, of course, depended fundamentally on the labor of undocumented workers. The construction industry, the restaurants, the nursing homes and the manicured lawns all rested on the flow northward of undocumented workers. Some came from Ecuador, from Honduras or El Salvador. But most came--and still come--from Mexico.

But the northward migratory pressures aren't simply the result of the "pull" of jobs. There is also the "push" of Mexico's faltering agricultural economy--in particular, the destruction of Mexico's agricultural sector in the wake of the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), which opened up Mexico's markets to corn from American agribusiness, backed up by billions of dollars in U.S. government subsidies.

As a consequence, the traditional means of subsistence for some 6 million Mexican farmers has been rendered "obsolete." Farmers have been forced off their land and thrust into the cities--in Mexico and the U.S.--to look for work.

The neoliberal response has been ruthless. While commodities and capital are allowed to flow freely across the borders, people are not. While their labor is central to the economy, their bodies, their culture and their language are under assault.

As her presentation continues, García vibrates with anger at the injustices she has tried to respond to as a lawyer, human rights activist and community organizer over the course of three decades. After some discussion, she leads the group to the federal courthouse for a glimpse at the assembly-line parody of justice, dubbed Operation Streamline, which charges first-time border crossers with federal crimes that carry prison sentences.

In the last 10 years, federal prosecutions of immigration-related crimes are up 459 percent, according to a Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse report. As a result, nonviolent border crossers are facing federal criminal convictions--which disqualify them from ever seeking citizenship--in record numbers.

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Driving to Phoenix, 2:45 p.m.

ALL ALONG the road between Tucson and Phoenix, Sen. John McCain has plastered his message for the Arizona Republican primary: "McCain: For a secure border." McCain is facing a challenge in the August 24 election from J.D. Hayworth, a former sportscaster-turned-lawmaker, who served six terms in the House of Representatives.

Hayworth has been pummeling McCain as "soft on immigration" because McCain coauthored a bill with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy that contained provisions for a guest-worker program and an onerous path to citizenship. Anti-immigrant critics dubbed the legislation "amnesty," and McCain, fighting to hang on to his seat in the anti-incumbent election cycle, has decided to try to be even more anti-immigrant than his challenger.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who catapulted to national notoriety by signing SB 1070 as well as a law banning ethnic studies from Arizona's public schools, is also up for election. Actually, Brewer hasn't been elected governor yet--she succeeded Janet Napolitano after Barack Obama appointed Napolitano to head the Department of Homeland Security.

But with a crowded field in the Republican primary, the anti-immigrant hysteria could grow even more as candidates look for ways to distinguish themselves.

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Phoenix, Festival for Human Rights, 6 p.m.

AS THE fierce desert heat gives way to pleasant evening breezes, people who have already arrived for the march tomorrow are gathering for an evening of street theater, musical performance and poetry slams near Phoenix's Grant Park.

Within minutes, I meet people from a half-dozen states. There is a global justice activist from Seattle who rode 36 hours on a bus with 50 others from Washington and Oregon. There's 20-year-old Juan Rodriguez, who walked with three others from Miami to Washington, D.C., to raise awareness about the plight facing immigrants in the U.S.

And then there's Eun Young Lee, who works as the youth program director at the Korean American Resource and Cultural Center, just blocks from where I live in Chicago. Says Lee:

We wanted to bring a vanload of youth from Chicago, but many are undocumented, and even those who have status and are waiting for green cards were afraid. So we decided that we had to send people who had status here, and we came to represent the one in five Koreans in the U.S. who are undocumented.

A lot of people think that Asian people are not undocumented, that Asians are the "model minority," and this is all about Mexicans, but it's really not. A lot of Korean American students are undocumented and would benefit from the DREAM Act and comprehensive immigration reform.

And we don't want to see families separated. We have a student whose parents were deported, and he was born here. Now he's living with a guardian and separated from his parents. But this is really an issue that affects all of us, and we need to stand together against injustice in Arizona, because if we don't, it can spread elsewhere.

Mayor Daley has said that Chicago is a sanctuary city, but we still have deportations in Chicago, and we still have raids in Chicago. And then there are cities like Waukegan, where the city council passed an ordinance saying police can stop anyone they suspect of being undocumented--and that's just like here, it's racial profiling. So this affects everyone.

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May 29

Phoenix, Steele Indian School Park, 8 a.m.

IT'S ALREADY in the 80s, and there are thousands of people streaming into the park where a massive march is assembling. There's the steady beat of drums, people slathering on sunblock, and families looking for a piece of shade while the crowd gathers.

The atmosphere is partly festive, but many people I speak with also say that they feel sadness.

People like Vicente Rodriguez, a 70-year-old man who made the trip from San Diego to be a part of the protest. Rodriguez is no stranger to the issues in Arizona. He works with a group called Angeles del Desierto (Desert Angels) that does search-and-rescue missions for migrants who have lost their way in the forbidding terrain that so many must now cross.

"The families or migrants with the group may call us to see if we can find someone who they've lost contact with," he explains. "Sometimes we only find the bodies." He goes on to explain the deep connection with the land that motivated him to make the trip:

The reason I'm here is because my family has lived for more than 100 years in Arizona, even before it was a state. I don't think people know that Arizona and New Mexico were together once called the Arizona territory, and the reason Arizona became a state was because Santa Fe was the hub of the Arizona territory at that time.

But people in Arizona said that they didn't want to be dominated by the Mexicans in Santa Fe, so Congress split the territory in two, and formed Arizona and New Mexico. So there has been a history of a hundred years of racism.

When you look at the three laws that have been passed--SB 1070, the bill that penalizes employers who hire workers who don't have papers, and the bill that bans ethnic studies--you see that it's ethnic cleansing.

Arizona was a territory of Mexico, and there have been Mexicans here since before it became a state. And now we have had an influx to Arizona of people coming from the Midwest and East--a lot of people who are retired, and they want to bring their home with them. But this is foreign to Arizona. Arizona is something different. There's an Indian history to it, and there's a Mexican history to it.

This same sentiment is echoed by Running Deer, a Vietnam-era veteran who is white and took the name Running Deer as a kid. He says:

SB 1070 is a violation of human rights, and everyone has the right to be free. As far as I'm concerned, the only people in this country who are not illegal are Native Americans and Mexicans; this was their land before everyone else immigrated here. There was a point when our country said, "Send us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free." What happened to that? Now they want to turn that around because they're Mexicans. That don't work for me.

Daniel Hernandez is a 32-year-old construction worker who came to Arizona more than a decade ago looking for work. "I have four children who are Americans, but my wife and I are not," he explains to me in Spanish. "They were born here, and we want to stay together as a family, today and always. We want to stay with our brothers and sisters, with our children. That's why we came to march--so that our voices are heard and they make changes to the laws."

When I ask him if he's seen changes in the treatment of immigrants in Arizona over the years, he shakes his head. "Yes, but only for the worse," he says. "Finding a job is more difficult now because of fear due to laws like SB 1070. We only came here to find work, to support our families. I like Arizona. I've been to Washington, California, New Mexico, but I always end up back in Arizona. So we have to march."

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Phoenix, March begins, 10:30 a.m.

IT'S BEEN a couple hours now, and people are anxiously awaiting the start of the march. As the massive column assembles, the anticipation turns to excitement and joy. Native Americans in traditional dress form the lead contingent of the march, followed by a group of military veterans, and then 100 or more young people who carry a massive banner spread over their heads that reads, "DREAM Act Now."

A man near me is chanting furiously: "¡Obama, escucha, estámos en la lucha!" (Obama, hear us, we are fighting!)

I ask him what he thinks of Obama's policy toward immigrants. "I think Obama is a racist," says Richard Ponty. "He is sending troops to the border and creating chaos there. SB 1070 is racial profiling. I'm a U.S. citizen, I was born in Tucson. But if the police see me, they're going to stop me and ask me for papers because I'm brown. And that's wrong. That's why I'm saying that Obama is racist, because he is feeding this by sending troops to the border."

As the front of the march stretches out into the city streets, the back of the march is still waiting to leave the park.

The march organizers planned a number of water stations along the five-mile route, but it makes me painfully aware of just how difficult a 30- or 40-mile walk through the desert would be. No water stations, no convenience stores, just endless unmarked trails through desert scrub. And in the event that the elements are just too overpowering, there are few if any options: Succumb to the Border Patrol, surrendering the hundreds or thousands of dollars you've spent to make it this far, or...Well, it only gets a lot worse from there.

Anaya is a 25-year-old Navy veteran who was discharged under the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy for admitting that she had begun to have "homosexual feelings" during her time in the military. As she explains:

I came with a contingent from San Diego. I was treated as a second-class citizen, and I don't want to see that for migrants here. People don't migrate because it's fun, they come here to work, and then they face abuse of all kinds.

Even my girlfriend, who is Native American, was confronted by some guy in a parking lot who told her, "You, Mexican, go back to Mexico." It's outrageous. Another friend of mine, she was talking on her cell phone in Spanish, and this huge guy, a white guy, comes and punches her in the face, and tells her, "You're lucky that we're in public, because otherwise I would kill you, bitch."

We need to stop SB 1070, and all the other anti-immigrant laws here in Arizona and elsewhere. As the slogan says, "Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."

Again and again, this sentiment was echoed by marchers, anxious that Arizona's noxious laws might inspire imitators elsewhere, but also determined to resist such injustices. Beautiful posters produced by Alto Arizona were carried by many marchers. One reads, "Undocumented, unafraid, no tenemos miedo." And another, "We are human."

There are hundreds of creative--and powerful--handmade signs as well. One reads, "South African apartheid: passes. Nazi Germany: yellow stars. Arizona: papeles [papers]." Another says, "The only borders we shouldn't be allowed to cross are those of human dignity."

But perhaps the sentiment that best sums up the march is the chant that seemed to resonate with everyone who heard it: "¡Queremos un mundo sin fronteras!" (We demand a world without borders!)

Transcription assistance from Karen Domínguez Burke and Rossana Rodriguez

Socialist Worker


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