Arizona Rising

Christine AhnSummer is always hot in Arizona, but the summer of 2010 may be hotter than any in recent memory.

On April 23, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law the toughest bill on immigration today. This legislation, SB1070, grants police officers the power to stop and interrogate anyone they suspect is an undocumented immigrant. In other words, local authorities are given license to racially profile any individual. If they are unable to verify their citizenship, they can be arrested and fined $500 on the spot.

When Brewer signed the bill, it was the last in a long line of abuses against immigrants. But the people of Arizona, outraged over the racist and anti-immigrant policies and practices sanctioned by the state, are beginning to fight back. Although the law is not slated to go into effect until August, marches, demonstrations, and boycotts are already well underway. The people of Arizona are taking it to the streets.

City councils across the country — in Boston, West Hollywood, Oakland, Tucson, and Flagstaff — have all passed resolutions against SB1070, and San Francisco mayor Gavin Newsom imposed a moratorium on city worker’s official travel to Arizona. The Phoenix Suns even demonstrated their solidarity with migrant communities when they wore jerseys with “Los Suns” on Cinco de Mayo.

Yet the most determined opposition to the bill comes from the Arizona migratory communities that are experiencing a state of siege. They are no longer willing to be treated as refuse, and they’re making a straightforward declaration that we are human beings: Somos seres humanos. Even as they are being threatened with deportation, they are flatly stating that they’re here and they’re not leaving: Aqui estamos. No nos vamos.

Assault on Mothers

Over Mother’s Day weekend, an emergency human rights delegation of feminist leaders, journalists, and grassroots organizers went to Phoenix to document and lift up the experiences of women and children in the wake of the hostile anti-immigrant climate. The delegation heard testimonies from undocumented women and children. It also visited the Tent City detention centers established by Joe Arpaio, the infamous sheriff of Maricopa County.

“I’ve been talking with mothers, and their children are asking, ‘what is going to happen if they take my mother away? What will I do? Where will I go?’” explains Martha Vargas, leader of Puente, a Phoenix-based human rights group, on how the recent anti-immigrant law was affecting women and children in Arizona.

The testimonies provided insight into how SB1070 has aggravated the assault on their basic human rights through state-sanctioned violence.

“I never knew this could happen,” said Catherine, a nine-year old girl whose parents were recently arrested in a workplace raid. She was among several young children who recalled returning from school to find their parents not home. They later received a call from immigration officials informing them that their parents had been detained, some for several months. One child shared a drawing of her house, which was caged. Several children, when asked what they wanted to become when they grew up, responded that that they wanted to become policemen so they could arrest Joe Arpaio. The rest wanted to be lawyers, reflecting the children’s desire for power to right the wrongs affecting their families’ lives.

“We come here to work and all the time were just trying to survive,” Catherine’s mother, Sandra testified. “But we have to live closed in fear.” Woman after woman shared how everyone is afraid to come out of their homes, whether to drive to the grocery store or to send their children to school. One woman named Terri told the delegation that she had often given rides to people going to the doctor or to the store, but “since SB 1070 was signed, a lot of people haven’t been coming out, even to get free food.”

Women testified that not only were they afraid to access medical or other urgent social services, the threat of deportation also prevents them from reporting incidences of sexual assault, domestic violence, or exploitation on the job. Women said that they would not report a sexual assault because they cannot trust their supposed protectors. According to one woman, “If the law goes through, I don’t think any woman will call the police again. It will be chaos. It will be terrible.”

Then there are the cases of police brutality. One woman named Alejandra was the victim of police violence during a raid by Maricopa County sheriff deputies wearing ski masks. They slammed her into a wall, and she suffered injuries to her jaw and teeth. While detained for three months, she was denied any medical care. The mother of four children, she was still nursing her three-month old baby at the time of the raid. Stories like these abound. According to Inter Press Service journalist Valeria Fernández, several migrant women have been shackled during childbirth. One woman named Alma Chacón gave birth while shackled with a 12-foot long chain. She wasn’t able to hold her baby for 70 days until she was finally released.

Migrant women live on the edge — attempting to juggle their work, raise their children, and care for their families in the United States and in their country of origin — yet they live with the threat of having their families and lives turned upside down at any moment. And the impact of this immigration policy will reverberate for some time in the lives of the children. “It’s not like a wound that just heals,” said a woman named Esperanza. “They’re damaging our soul. The scars will be there forever.”

Trends in Transnational Migration

According to the UNFPA States of the World Population 2006, 95 million women currently reside outside of countries where they were born. The proportion of women migrants has gradually increased over the past 50 years. In 1960, 46 percent of all international migrants were women; by 2000, women were 49 percent of all migrants. Fifty years ago, more women migrated as dependents and to be reunited with families, whereas today a higher percentage of women are leaving for economic opportunities. According to the UN report, women migrants tend to remit a large portion of their salaries to support households back home.

Although most immigrants rely on networks or contacts with family members to ease the transition, research shows that “female migrants appear to be more deterred by risky border crossings, uncertain prospects abroad, and concerns for personal safety.” No wonder. According to a report by Amnesty International, six out of 10 Central American women and girls are raped crossing through Mexico to get to the United States. The situation has become so bad that smugglers are allegedly demanding that “women receive contraceptive injections ahead of the journey, to avoid them falling pregnant as a result of the rape.”

What is often absent from debates about immigration is why so many people are seeking work in the United States. According to Timothy A. Wise of Tufts University, the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) doubled migration to the United States, “despite stepped up enforcement along the U.S.-Mexico border.” In a report with the Carnegie Endowment, Wise documents how NAFTA opened the doors to U.S. multinational corporations, like Smithfield, to expand its operations and force small Mexican producers out of business. NAFTA raised exports of highly subsidized U.S. corn by over 400 percent, which forced some 2.3 million people out of agriculture between 1993 and 2008. “The border crackdown not only failed to slow the influx,” Wise writes, “it paradoxically encouraged those who survived the perilous journey to stay rather than risk repeated trips for seasonal work, as many had done before.”

Migrants are here to earn a living because the U.S. government and corporations have played their parts in destroying their home countries’ economies through trade agreements and other economic arrangements that force the collapse of their domestic industries and agricultural sector.

SB1070 Is Everyone’s Struggle

As Arizona heats up, one thing has become quite clear: The struggle to defeat SB1070 isn’t just the business of immigrant communities and the immigrant rights movement; it’s an issue of women’s and workers’ rights. SB1070 gives license to local authorities to legally practice racial profiling, which should also raise the ire of communities of color, and the civil rights and liberties communities. But the criminalization of immigrants should frighten us all.

The amount of money that the U.S. government allocates to border security and enforcement should cause alarm, given how ineffective it has been. Furthermore, despite decreasing rates of immigration from Latin America, the cost of enforcement is rising. Contrary to the common perception of a continuous rise in immigration, a report by the Pew Hispanic Center found otherwise: “The number of migrants coming to the United States each year, legally and illegally, grew very rapidly starting in the mid-1990s, hit a peak at the end of the decade, and then declined substantially after 2001.” In 1994, the Clinton administration spent around $550 million on border security and $350 million on entry point inspections, and this amount quadrupled during his tenure. Yet despite the decline in migrants after 2001, the Bush administration quadrupled this budget for enforcement and by 2005 had spent $7.3 billion.

Border enforcement on immigration is “almost always ambiguous,” according to research by economist J. Edward Taylor at the University of California, Davis. The 1996 immigration bill signed by Clinton, he adds, “did not significantly affect overall migration and may have increased migration to U.S. farm jobs.” Taylor also found that “U.S. expenditures on border enforcement have not reduced the probability of Mexico-to-U.S. migration, and they may have increased it.”

According to a report by a former Department of Homeland Security official, the Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement division detained over 380,000 migrants in 2009. Of these detentions, 60 percent came from state and local police through programs like the Criminal Alien Program and 287(g), which deputizes local police to become immigration enforcement agents. Last month, the Department of Homeland Security Inspector General released a report that found that the 287(g) program is “not operating in compliance with the terms of the agreements” and had led to the detention of immigrants who pose no threat.

The Illegal Immigration Reform and Immigrant Responsibility Act of 1996 was a major turning point in the criminalization of immigrants and the militarization of the border. According to Elena Letona of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, the 1996 immigration bill set up the legal framework that defined the immigrant community as a threat. “It’s not just about undocumented immigrants,” says Letona, “but also green card holders.” The law made it much easier for immigrants to be detained and deported.

Chris Newman, legal director of the National Day Laborer Organizer Network, is confident that the federal courts will intervene to block the implementation of SB 1070. His organization is bringing a lawsuit against the state of Arizona. “The framers of the constitution were very clear that certain powers, including the power to regulate immigration, must remain the purview of the federal government,” says Newman. “We don’t want to live in a country where people need to show their passport every time they move from state to state.” But the migratory communities in Arizona are not waiting on the action of the federal court.

Speaking Out

Despite the deleterious effects that enforcement and the criminalization is having on individual lives, immigrants are speaking up. They are organizing even in a thick climate of repression and fear and under the very real threats of detention, separation, and deportation.

We have a responsibility to extend our solidarity to these families and advocate for a just and sane immigration reform, which decriminalizes immigrants and de-militarizes immigration policy. We have a chance to take a stand and say enough is enough. We are a nation built on immigrants, and we cannot continue to dehumanize the women, men, and children who cross the border for economic survival.

Even before Brewer signed SB1070, President Obama spoke out against the law: “We can’t start singling out people because of who they look like or how they talk or how they dress.” The task now is to pressure Obama to overturn this bill, as well as terminate the 287(g) agreements and the Secure Communities programs that involve local police officials in immigration enforcement. The president must heed the cries from mothers and children to stop the raids and the criminalization of migratory women and their families.

Christine Ahn is a columnist for Foreign Policy In Focus and the Senior Policy and Research Analyst at the Global Fund for Women. Linda Burnham is a longtime social justice activist and writer, a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, and co-founder of the Women of Color Resource Center.