Arizona: Ground Zero in Immigration's New Race Wars

Much has been eclipsed in the post-election euphoria, not least of which is the continuity of racist violence in the United States. The election of Barack Obama notwithstanding, the black population still bears the overwhelming brunt of this violence, in its systematic and informal guises in prisons and on the streets, and with the far right gearing up, we can expect more of the same. But with new dynamics, political and geopolitical, come new violences, and we have seen in recent years a steady increase in anti-Latino or anti-immigrant violence alongside a notable spike after Sept. 11, 2001, in anti-"Arab" violence.


Recently released statistics show violence against Latino immigrants to be the fastest growing of all hate crimes, fueled by an atmosphere of linguistic-racial hatred and permissiveness to violence against all those deemed to be from "elsewhere." In a recent report, the Southern Poverty Law Center noted the shocking growth in anti-Latino hate crime, and in early November, an Ecuadorian man was beaten and stabbed to death on Long Island, N.Y., by a lynch mob of young, mostly white teens looking for some racist fun "hunting beaners," a game they claim to have played weekly. Less than a month later, yet another Ecuadorean was beaten until brain-dead in Brooklyn, this time allegedly by black men who shouted ethnic and homophobic slurs.

Such informal violence has always gone hand-in-hand with the structural violence of the state: informal and legal lynching are but a single, Janus-faced phenomenon. In this vein, alongside a rise in informal hate crimes, we have seen a marked increase in the destructive intervention of Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents and local law enforcement vigilantes like Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, Ariz., permissiveness toward racist Minutemen-type militia organizations and the direct result of these policies in skyrocketing deaths along the border. And the ties between this formal anti-immigrant racism and the prison-industrial complex are increasingly clear. INCITE! recently revealed that the U.S. government’s anti-immigration enforcement budget had increased nearly tenfold since 1993, to $13.6 billion in 2008, and that immigrant detention "is now the fastest-growing incarceration program in the country."

"Free to Live, Love and Work…"

In this rising tide of state and informal violence, Arizona has come to be ground zero. There, Lou Dobbs darling "Sheriff Joe" has institutionalized a "Posse" program, deputizing civilians to enforce anti-immigration laws. After Arizona passed a 2005 law extending felony immigrant-smuggling charges to state jurisdiction (the so-called Coyote Law), anti-immigrant Maricopa County Attorney Andrew P. Thomas handed down a decision that would charge smuggled immigrants as felonious co-conspirators of their smugglers, and Arpaio (who once claimed to be honored to be compared to the KKK) has proceeded to enforce this controversial decision obsessively, empowering his 3,000 Posse volunteers (some armed) to apprehend "illegal immigrants" for criminal prosecution. Deaths on the Arizona border regularly account for half of all border deaths, and 2008 is on pace to be a record-setting year.

But this rabidly racist anti-immigrant movement has not gone uncontested, meeting instead with popular resistance in the Latino community (both undocumented and documented), and to a lesser degree in the progressive white community. Recently, these sectors have coalesced in Repeal Coalition (Coalición de Cambio), a Flagstaff, Ariz., organization that has brought together members of groups like No More Deaths/No Más Muertes and Bring the Ruckus, and which "demands the repeal of all laws -- federal, state and local -- that degrade and discriminate against undocumented individuals and that deny U.S. citizens their lawful rights."

Repeal members such as Xochitl Trevizo insist that their view is a moral one, and this is reflected in their slogan, which insists that "all people, regardless of documentation, have the right to live, love and work wherever they please." I had the opportunity to speak with several active members of Repeal Coalition to better understand their motivations, arguments and prospects for long-term success.

Two Conservatisms, Two Immoral Visions

Asuka began working with the Repeal Coalition shortly after arriving in Arizona for an international student-exchange program in September. As a Japanese-Peruvian, Asuka was initially surprised to discover the severity of the situation along the southern border: "Before I arrived in Arizona, I didn’t realize how bravo, how rough the situation is, how much damage these laws are doing to the people here." According to Katie, a Phoenix native and Repeal member, many local activists felt that, while No More Deaths had been effective in providing a minimal degree of humanitarian aid to those crossing through the desert, "things had gotten so bad that humanitarian aid wasn’t enough, and someone had to step forward with political proposals."

While some in No More Deaths were critical of the push toward political organizing, arguing that to do so would encourage repression of often subterraneous immigrant communities, many NMD members eventually joined the Repeal Coalition. The Repeal Coalition initially coalesced in February 2008 around the idea to write a resolution that would declare Flagstaff a "sanctuary city" in which "all human beings -- with papers or without -- be guaranteed access to work, housing, health care, education, legal protection and other public benefits, as well as the right to organize."

As members of the nascent coalition saw things, Arizonans were confronted with two conservative sectors with equally unethical perspectives on immigration: either to "kick them all out" (the response, generally, of social conservatives), or to institute a new form of highly exploitative guest worker, or bracero, program (the response from local capitalists who thrive on immigrant labor). But needless to say, these are not the only two options, even if cowardly liberals bow to the conservative dichotomy. On the ground in Arizona, the Repeal Coalition has provided a basis through which undocumented workers and activists are forging new paths of resistance to these false alternatives.

But according to the coalition’s "power analysis," establishing Flagstaff’s sanctuary city status was to be no easy task, the city’s relatively progressive credentials notwithstanding. "I would like to say the City Council looks friendly," Taryn tells me, "but our resolution is aggressive, asking the city not to enforce any immigration laws, or to do so at a bare minimum." And if Repeal Coalition was to avoid falling into the trap of being a largely white organization speaking for the interests of the immigrant community, members recognized that they needed to respond more directly to the needs and desires of that community. As a result, the "sanctuary city" resolution has, in practice, served, in the words of Katie "more as an organizing tool to build a community movement," and the Repeal Coalition members have been canvassing Flagstaff’s Latino community heavily for months in an effort to put the undocumented community in the driver's seat of the coalition while building the organizational basis for further resistance and struggle. As members put it:

Each door has brought us closer to the reality and fear that undocumented and people of color are facing on a daily basis. This is the fear of the police, the fear of deportation and the fear of being excluded from something as basic as the right to live, love and work wherever they please… One woman told her story, while holding her baby, of her fear to drive to the hospital when her child was sick. She was too afraid to leave her house. And she could barely get the words out of her mouth as tears dripped down her face. 

When asked how the undocumented community has responded to Repeal’s message, Katie is upbeat: people are responding well, she says, noting that membership in the coalition and recent meetings have seen significant growth. But there has also been more demand for community support, reliable contacts that undocumented residents can call upon for groceries or supplies if they are too at-risk to leave their homes safely, "you know, little things that make the day easier if you’re under attack." Asuka says, "we have created a close connection with the community; for me that’s the best part."

ICE Responds

For Repeal Coalition member Taryn, one objective of the coalition’s sanctuary city resolution was to test Flagstaff’s liberal credentials. After all, this is an area where undocumented workers had been relatively free to live out in the open without fear of ICE or local vigilante "posses," and where local political and police leaders had openly opposed the sorts of repressive measures deployed elsewhere. But as it turned out, Repeal would not need to wait for the resolution to be introduced for those liberal credentials to be tested.

On Nov. 19, the Repeal Coalition mobilized a large show of support for a rally in Flagstaff, and the very next day, Flagstaff was under full ICE assault: doors were kicked in, community members were arrested, and as tends to be the case in ICE raids, families were torn apart. While ICE’s stated purpose in the raids was to arrest only "alien absconders," or undocumented migrants with outstanding criminal warrants, witnesses insist that officials didn’t stop there. Many of the enforced warrants were only issued for overstaying visas, and some were up to a decade old, but ICE was seen making arrests even in cases where the individuals sought had moved out years ago. There are also reports that, contradicting stated policy, Flagstaff police aided ICE in gaining entry, and even allegations that family members have been detained as a sort of ransom until the targets of arrest turn themselves in.

While ICE has insisted that the raid had been in the works for a while, activists associated with the Repeal Coalition are skeptical of such convenient timing.

Taryn says: "It could have been strategic on their part to launch the raids the day after we had this rally, telling people to stand up and resist. … But I know it was good that we had all the contact information." As soon as Repeal was tipped off about the raids in progress, their organizational structure kicked in, and the coalition was able to help spread word among the undocumented community that ICE was in town. When they received the additional tip that ICE was planning to make arrests when parents picked their children up from Killip Elementary School, they mobilized a significant bloc of 50 documented members to warn of the raids and serve as a buffer between ICE and threatened community members. This bloc then developed and strengthened into a public rally on the streets outside Coconino County Jail to protest ICE’s presence.

As dusk fell, the Repeal Coalition joined forces with the local Copwatch, creating an ad hoc "ICE-watch" that patrolled the streets of Flagstaff to ensure that ICE was neither making indiscriminate arrests nor brutalizing those it was detaining. According to participants, this quick response managed to break up two ICE raids that were being conducted without warrants, despite ICE’s insistence that they were seeking only alien absconders. Furthermore, despite the explicit policies of Flagstaff police and the insistence of local officials that they were as surprised by the raids by anyone, witnesses claim local police were aiding ICE’s entry into residences.

"People had felt that Flagstaff was a safer community than Phoenix," Katie told me, "city officials had said that they wouldn’t ask immigration status, but this showed that immigrants aren’t safe in any part of Arizona."

Press Demonization and Misrepresentation

In the immediate aftermath of the ICE raids, press coverage of the Repeal Coalition’s role was positive on the whole, with the Arizona Daily Sun publishing a largely sympathetic piece. But by the very next day, the same author had evidently received his talking points from Flagstaff police, penning a new article with the intentionally damaging subhead: "The activists trying to stop the arrests ended up frightening students." This, however, was not how Repeal members and many in the undocumented community saw it. According to Taryn, this was merely a "nasty article … none of that happened." Repeal member Joel Olson responded with a letter insisting that:

We did not create the fear at Killip; the ICE roundup did. … The Repeal Coalition’s intention was to ease those worries. When we got word that ICE was arresting people, we were told that the children at Killip were petrified because many of them feared their loved ones had been arrested (as was true for some of them). In response, we organized U.S. citizens to go to Killip to escort any family members who were afraid to pick up their children. No one offered rides to children without adult supervision. No one sought to intimidate the children.

If anything, members insist that by accurately assessing the threat level that the raids entailed, the Repeal Coalition gained the respect of many community members. When the ICE raids hit, Taryn tells me, "Repeal Coalition was seen as providing the advice that people needed at that moment." Since the raids, that advice has been largely legal in nature -- advising community members of their rights, instructing them not to sign any papers offered by ICE or the police and informing them how to be in contact with lawyers if necessary. This strategy has been forced by the situation: Katie says, "we aren’t going to be knocking on doors while ICE is doing the same thing." For Taryn, Repeal’s current role is one of creating connections: "We’re trying to be a listening board, connecting people with other people outside ourselves who can help them."  

Press distortions, however, were not limited to right-wing demonization by the police, but extended even to the left-wing coverage of the event. In an article posted to local indie media shortly after Repeal’s mobilization at Killip Elementary, a well-meaning writer claimed that the resistance to the ICE raids was an ad hoc mobilization organized through impromptu meetings using consensus process. For Repeal members, however sympathetic to the writer’s perspective, this article neglected the fact that the coalition had been organizing on the ground for a full nine months, and that the mobilization, rather than appearing spontaneously, was the result of the patient and deliberate work of political organizers.

FIRE Turns Up the Heat, Melts ICE

Since the raids, it has been public knowledge that ICE agents have remained stationed in Flagstaff, holed up in the swanky Radisson, but even their home base would not be safe from community outrage. On Dec. 4, a previously unknown organization known as Flagstaff Immigrants Rights Enforcement gained entry to an ICE strategy session at the Radisson (video here). According to the organization’s communiqué,

FIRE agent Del Fuego read the notice of deportation to more than 15 ICE associated criminals, some of whom appeared to possibly be illegal immigrants themselves, as they were not Indigenous People. Agent Del Fuego called for the immediate withdrawal of ICE from the Flagstaff community and notified ICE of the cease-and-desist order for all future raids.

Like the Repeal Coalition, groups like FIRE are coming together in the immigration battleground of Arizona to call globalization’s bluff: If the proponents of global capital insist that it’s all about freedom, then the strategy is to hold the powerful to their bad-faith promises and ensure that people are free, too -- free to "live, love and work as they please..."

The Repeal Coalition is soliciting donations to ensure that anti-immigrant racism not go unanswered. You can make a donation through its Web page.

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