The preventable rise of Arizona’s SB 1070

“CAN YOU hear us now, Mexico? Can you hear us? This land is not your land, this land is our land,” proclaimed Atlanta talk-show radio host Larry Wachs, whipping the crowd of 5,000 into a frenzy. The intent of the statement was to define the enemy and expose its insidious plot: nothing less than an international conspiracy of Mexico’s children to invade and occupy Arizona soil with the criminal intentions of finding work, raising families, and achieving some semblance of social equality. Rally attendees would have none of this.

The “Stand with Arizona” rally was held on the evening of May 29 at Diablo Stadium in the Maricopa County suburb of Tempe as a response to the 100,000-strong march against Arizona’s SB 1070 earlier that day in downtown Phoenix. A week later, their own “national mobilization” of pro-SB 1070 forces entitled “Phoenix Rising” could only muster 1,000 despite much higher expectations. The keynote speaker of both events was Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose effort to turn the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department into his personal posse to hunt down undocumented workers helped paved the way for the passage of the new law. Arpaio giddily refers to July 29—the day in which the law was to be officially implemented—as the “magic day.”

Intended as a call-to-arms for a popular insurgency of supporters supposedly driving the law from the grassroots, the half-filled stadium in Tempe and poorly attended Phoenix rally told another story. The assortment of older, white, Republican Party functionaries and political aspirants, Tea Party activists, AM Radio talk-show entourages, and Minuteman groups reveals the underlying nature of this movement. Far from being the organic expression of a mobilized and disaffected citizenry, the latest anti-immigrant surge is a highly orchestrated campaign emanating from well within the political beltway.

The latest anti-immigrant campaign is timed much like the previous ones. Undocumented immigrants are being scapegoated in the lead-up to the 2010 elections with the hope that red-faced, fear-mongering campaigns will inflame the sensibilities of the population and create an internal threat to focus on and unite against. In this way, hammering immigrants can serve conservative Republicans as a wedge issue to supersede the constellation of real and tangible crises facing the populace, problems for which they have no solutions. It is gaining more traction in places like Arizona because the Obama administration and the Democratic Party-controlled Congress have not only abandoned immigrant legalization as part of their strategy, but they have also opened their own front in the war on immigrants. This has changed the equation of immigration politics, shifting it back onto right-wing terrain.

The Democrats’ strategy: Setting the stage for Arizona
Despite its being a major campaign promise, the Obama administration jettisoned plans for a legalization program in late April of 2010, concluding that lawmakers lacked the “appetite” to get behind it. “I don’t want us to do something just for the sake of politics that doesn’t solve the problem,” he was quoted as saying.1 Ironically, by not advancing legalization at the federal level, the Obama administration and congressional Democrats have allowed the Republican Party to seize the initiative at the state and local level and run aggressive crusade-like campaigns against immigrants purely for the sake of politics.

Rewinding the reel of the Democrats’ immigration debacle reveals that the passage of Arizona’s SB 1070 was wholly preventable. The Democratic Party not only squandered the best possible opportunity to pass a new legalization bill, but their timidity, capitulation, and failure has opened the door to a reactionary backlash that has set back the immigrant rights movement and put it on the defensive. Furthermore, the passage of SB 1070 has emboldened politicians across multiple states to copy the Arizona strategy of targeting Latino immigrants. For example, the “Arpaio model” is now informing sheriff campaigns in other cities such as San Diego.2 It has also opened the door to the mainstreaming of the campaign to overturn the Fourteenth Amendment and birthright citizenship, previously dismissed as a fringe movement. The rapid coalescing of forces around the SB 1070 is also encouraging cross-pollination with both the Tea Party movement and the white supremacist movement.3

The Democratic Party strategy under Obama was doomed from the start. It began with the party directive to bypass the House and push the issue through the Senate first. According to Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, this was carried out to ostensibly protect “vulnerable Democrats” who might lose in more conservative districts if they tangled with such a thorny issue. In reality, it was an effort to preempt and sideline efforts by Congressman Luis Gutierrez and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to introduce a bill considered “too liberal” by Democratic leaders.4 Minutes before the Gutierrez bill was introduced at a press conference in a Washington, D.C., Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC) Chair Chris Van Hollen (Md.) made it very clear that it wouldn’t see the light of day, stating to the press that “the Speaker’s been very clear that the Senate would go first on an immigration bill.”5

The Democratic leadership’s vision for immigration policy followed a carefully worded script that would not allow for deviation. Like with the health care debate, the Democrats wasted the opportunity to use their majority status in both houses of Congress to push for substantial reform and force the Republicans on the defensive. Instead, they conceded leadership to the minority-status Republicans through the illusory notion of “bipartisanship,” a myth the Republicans were willing to dispense with immediately.

This set up the second premise of the strategy, which asserted that an immigration reform bill would have to be crafted jointly with Republicans. In practice, this meant that any form of legalization would have to be buried underneath a package of draconian enforcement measures in order to secure Republican support. This tack to the right was in fact already dovetailing with the Democratic leadership’s own vision. As a presidential candidate, Obama outlined the emerging Democratic Party strategy that would unfold under his administration. According to a campaign email, he believed that immigration reform must include a “three-pronged response”:

1) strengthen border security; 2) establish a path to legalization that includes fines and adherence to the rule of law for immigrants and their families who may have entered the United States illegally but are now contributing and responsible members of society; and, 3) create a “guest-worker” program whereby American businesses can temporarily recruit foreign workers for jobs that American workers cannot or refuse to fill.

This approach was theoretically crafted to reconcile the three main conflicting forces in motion around the immigration debate: the Republican Right, the immigrant rights movement and immigrant constituencies, and the sectors of big business eager to maintain access to migrant labor. But according to the Obama strategy, immigration reform could only begin with confirmed Republican support. The emphasis on a bipartisan approach is reflected in the positions of Senator Charles Schumer, the Obama team’s point man in the Senate. Schumer is credited with pushing the party in a more conservative direction during his stint as chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee between 2005 and 2009 by promoting candidates that adopted Republican positions. This philosophy continues to inform his approach as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee’s subcommittee on immigration. For instance, the New York Times quoted Schumer as saying, “Public sentiment about the proposed immigration overhaul that failed in the Senate two years ago was that it ‘was too soft on illegal immigrants.’”6

This unilateral commitment to bipartisanship brought the Republican minority in through the front door of the process, despite the Democrats’ having substantial majorities in both the House and Senate. This was despite the fact that Republicans running on an anti-immigrant platform took heavy losses in the 2006 and 2008 elections, as well as the Republican presidential primaries. For example, the organization Immigration2006 tracked fifteen key congressional races in the 2006 elections, finding that pro-reform Democrats defeated Republicans running anti-immigrant campaigns in twelve of the contests. This helped produce a Democratic-controlled House.

An America’s Voice study of the 2008 elections tracked sixteen competitive battleground races in which Republican candidates highlighted their Democratic opponent’s purported positions in favor of immigration reform. In fourteen of the sixteen campaigns, the tactic failed. In the primaries, all of the candidates focusing on immigrant criminalization, from Tom Tancredo to Mike Huckabee to Mitt Romney, were handily defeated by John McCain, who was disparaged as being “pro-amnesty” by the other candidates (McCain’s position has shifted substantially since then).

Taking their cues from the Republicans, the Democrats and their backers not only adopted the “enforcement first” strategy but developed their own vision for cracking down on immigrants. The Obama plan of “strengthening security” devolved into the primary focus. Democratic Party strategists and aligned think tanks began to push candidates and incumbents to take harder positions on immigration. For example, a policy brief entitled “Winning the Immigration Debate” was circulated through the Democratic Party by the Washington D.C.-based lobbying groups Center for American Progress and the Coalition for Comprehensive Immigration Reform (a coalition that includes the Service Employees International Union, the National Council of La Raza, America’s Voice, and others). The brief called on Democrats to co-opt punitive language when discussing immigration. Specifically, the report encouraged a shift from characterizing undocumented workers and their families as victims of scapegoating and harsh enforcement measures to lawbreakers who must be punished as part of any effort regularize their status. Huffington Post cites a 2007 Obama campaign speech that demonstrates this subtle shift, in which the emphasis is on punishing fines and stringent requirements: “We want to have a situation in which those who are already here, are playing by the rules, are willing to pay a fine and go through a rigorous process should have a pathway to legalization. Most Americans will support that if they have some sense that the border is also being secured.”7

The Schumer-led approach also reflects the desperate attempt to court intransigent Republicans by capitulating to their anti-immigrant rhetoric. In Schumer’s “seven principles of immigration reform,” he refers to immigrants as “illegal aliens” instead of undocumented workers. He calls on other Democrats to also make this shift, urging that, “When we use phrases like ‘undocumented workers,’ we convey a message to the American people that their Government is not serious about combating illegal immigration, which the American people overwhelmingly oppose.”8

Democrats launch war on undocumented immigrants
Rhetoric aside, the punitive measures against immigrant workers by the Obama administration have been severe. The ideological framework was articulated by Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Secretary Janet Napolitano, who stated in a Houston Chronicle editorial,

The Obama administration’s approach is to view border security, interior immigration enforcement, and counternarcotics enforcement as inextricably linked.… While enforcement at the border is critical, it’s only effective if paired with smart enforcement of the immigration laws within our borders as well. That begins with a focus on apprehending criminals, whether they are employers who knowingly cultivate an illegal workforce, or criminal aliens who commit crimes that endanger lives.9

This set the stage for a multipronged approach to increased internal immigration enforcement through the Department of Homeland Security. This has included: the expansion of the federal 287(g) program, which allows police to collaborate with agents in the apprehension and deportation of immigrants; the “Secure Communities Initiative,” which intensifies and streamlines the search and retrieval of undocumented immigrants in communities; the E-Verify database system, which allows employers to root out and fire workers without papers; and a federal system of personnel audits to punish companies that employ undocumented workers and encourage preemptive mass firings. By 2010, these “audits” have intensified. According to the Los Angeles Times,

Federal officials are turning to some other familiar tactics, most notably the use of use of audits to check for illegal workers. Since July, the government has notified more than 1,600 companies nationwide of plans to audit their records. Hundreds of inspections are ongoing. In fiscal year 2010, which ends in September, the agency fined 109 companies a total of about $3 million, up from $675,000 in fines against 18 companies in fiscal year 2008. And so far this fiscal year, 65 employers have been arrested, compared to 135 in all of 2008.10

The administration also increased militarization and personnel buildup along the U.S. border, including announcing the deployment of 1,200 National Guard troops to the region within weeks after Arizona’s passage of anti-immigrant SB 1070. As part of the strategy, the administration also mandated that DHS ramp up deportations, establishing a quota of at least 400,000 deportations per year by the end of 2010.11

The ratcheting up of enforcement under the Obama administration has not only continued the policies of the Bush administration, but it has set a new standard in enforcement priority. According to the San Francisco Chronicle,

The Department of Homeland Security unveiled a $56.3 billion budget [February 2010] that includes funding for the virtual border fence, E-Verify, and an increase in the number of border patrol officers and intelligence analysts along the southern border. In a year in which President Obama has spoken about the need to “save what we can” to combat record deficits, some federal agencies are seeing programs trimmed or eliminated entirely, but DHS escaped the budgeting process unscathed. Obama’s budget, which must be approved by Congress before it takes effect, asks for $6 billion more for DHS than the department received in FY 2010.12

The culmination of this strategy took shape in the announcement of the Democratic Legislative Framework, the Schumer/Senate Democrats’ proposal for beginning the discussion of immigration reform in early May 2010. This plan included a further expansion of the Border Patrol, the tripling of fines against employers who hire undocumented workers, and the development of biometric identification cards that incorporate fingerprints, retinal scans, “vein geometry” or “facial mapping” for all U.S. workers to be cross-checked for eligibility with a federal database.13

By the time of its announcement, the proposal was already dead on arrival. So much had already been conceded to the minority Republican opposition without a fight, that they had no need to make more overtures toward the Democrats and ditched any pretense of support for legalization. They could now beat the Democrats with the club they handed to them, and use it as leverage in the upcoming elections. As the Washington Post reported,

The plan’s emphasis on “securing the border first” before taking steps to allow many of an estimated 11 million illegal immigrants living in the United States to pay fines and apply for legal status was plainly a gesture to Republicans. Even so, no Republican is supporting it, not even Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), who has been working with Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) in bipartisan talks over the issue for months. The Democrats’ shift underscores how, in the struggle between enforcement advocates and legalization backers, the former seem to be gaining.14

Despite being left at the altar, the Democratic leadership has trudged on with the same strategy, supporting yet another increase of Border Patrol personnel in August. Obama and the Senate Democrats’ call for adding 1,500 more agents to the bloated force of more than 20,000 led the Los Angeles Times to conclude that only around border enforcement and militarization does the Senate find a “rare moment of bipartisan compromise in an otherwise divisive environment.”15

The Republicans have since seized on the opportunity to mobilize around the issue. Support for a campaign against immigrants offers some benefits for a party that was being elegized as “a permanent minority” only a year ago. At a time of economic recession, shady financial bailouts, anti-corporate sentiment, flagging imperial wars, and rapidly widening social inequality, anti-immigrant politics and racism offer a means to take the attention away from the failings of the capitalist system and its architects. Furthermore, the Republicans are betting that the substantial Latino, labor, and immigrant constituencies that helped propel the Democrats into office with high expectations for immigration reform will be demoralized by its failure, with many staying home in November.

The failure of the Democratic Party’s strategy is not just linked to faulty judgments. It is tied to the very nature of the party itself, especially its direct links to corporations. Legalization presents problems for big business, as legalized workers can fight for and negotiate higher wages and better working conditions with less fear of reprisal or state repression. As David Bacon pointed out in the Progressive,

No one in the Obama or Bush administrations, or the Clinton administration before them, wants to stop migration to the U.S. or imagines that this could be done without catastrophic consequences. The very industries they target for enforcement are so dependent on the labor of migrants they would collapse without it. Instead, immigration policy and enforcement consigns those migrants to an “illegal” status, and undermines the price of their labor. Enforcement is a means for managing the flow of migrants, and making their labor available to employers at a price they want to pay.16

According to a March 2010 Center for Economic and Policy Research study, immigrant workers comprise 16.2 percent of the overall Arizona workforce, a percentage that is likely to increase.17 Because of their tendency to prioritize the needs of big business over labor and compromise over principle, the Democrats are more eager and willing to pursue enforcement than fight for legalization.

Passing the initiative to the far right
The legalization component of Democratic Party strategy never materialized. Instead, the punitive measures and rhetoric shifted the immigration debate back into the terrain of the far right. This opening has allowed the anti-immigrant wing of the Republican Party and extremists on its periphery to make a hard push on the issue, marginalizing moderates, sabotaging any attempts at reform, and continuing to force an anti-immigrant agenda to the forefront of national politics in the lead-up to the 2010 recognized this process unfolding in 2008, commenting, “Yet while Bush was passing the torch to McCain as the party’s standard bearer, a half dozen conservative GOP senators were unveiling proposals dealing with deportation, making English the official language, revoking funds for ‘sanctuary cities’ and giving local police more immigration enforcement powers.”18

Well-funded anti-immigrant lobby organizations and the anti-immigrant media circuit then sprang into action to do the heavy lifting at the state and local level. As the Los Angeles Times reported in June 2008,

[Anti-immigrant] groups have begun working to hem in the future president. They have pushed for new city and state laws, helping spur hundreds of bills around the country in the last three months. They’ve held conferences to educate members nationwide and lobby local officials. And they’re promoting the election of congressional candidates who take a hard line on immigration. The strategy is to reshape the national political landscape to fend off future liberalization proposals.19

The broad-based anti-immigrant campaign swung the back door wide open for the inclusion of hate groups and the mainstreaming of racism. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the number of hate groups targeting immigrants grew by 33 percent between 2000 and 2005, while anti-Latino hate crimes have increased 40 percent annually between 2003 and 2007. A May Associated Press-Univision Poll revealed that 81 percent of Latinos say they experience some or a lot of discrimination. This growth of hate and violence has occurred in tandem with the crackdown on immigrants taking place across the country, and has moved racism from the margins to the center of these campaigns. One hate group in particular, the pseudo-scientific, anti-immigrant Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) has advanced the theoretical framework of “enforcement through attrition” that now informs much of the efforts at criminalization. According to Tom Barry of the International Relations Center,

The Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) took the lead in developing this strategic framework. In April 2006 this restrictionist think tank published, “Attrition through Enforcement: A Cost-Effective Strategy to Shrink the Illegal Population,” which lays out the main components of a war of attrition against immigrants along with the estimated cost of a multi-front campaign to wear down immigrant residents and dissuade would-be immigrants…Key components include: Eliminating access to jobs through employer verification of Social Security numbers and immigration status; ending misuse of Social Security and IRS numbers by immigrants in seeking employment, bank accounts, and driver’s licenses, and improved information sharing among key federal agencies, including the Internal Revenue Service, in the effort to identify unauthorized residents; Increasing federal, state, and local cooperation, particularly among law enforcement agencies; Reducing visa overstays through better tracking systems; Stepping up immigration raids; and passing state and local laws to discourage illegal immigrants from making a home in that area and to make it more difficult for immigrants to conceal their status.20

By the end of the 2008 presidential campaign, Republican candidate John McCain had already changed tack on the issue, calling for heavy enforcement measures to be implemented before any form of legalization is considered. After the election, Obama made the strategy his own. As the New York Times observed, “That approach brings Mr. Obama around to the position that his Republican rival, Senator John McCain of Arizona…[opening] a political rift with some immigrant advocacy and Hispanic groups whose voters were crucial to the Obama victory.”21

Since the Democrats had already adapted components of the “enforcement through attrition” strategy at the federal level, it became easier for Republicans to push the full agenda at the state and local level. What’s happening in Arizona is the front edge of this national campaign and similar anti-immigrant alignments are taking shape in other parts of the country watching developments very closely. Already, admirers and copycats of SB 1070 are moving into action. Republican and Democratic legislators in fourteen other states have begun to move forward with similar legislation.

The Arizona laboratory
While Arizona Republicans may be taking credit for SB 1070 to build their careers by stepping on the necks on undocumented workers and their families, it is actually a foreign import into the state. The law is the brainchild of Kris Kobach, an anti-immigrant lawyer on the payroll of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). FAIR is a Washington D.C.-based lobbying group dedicated to promoting extreme measures against immigrants and is directly linked to the Center for Immigration Studies and the “enforcement through attrition” strategy. Kobach’s origins are far from grassroots. According to the Arizona Republic,

In 2001, just days after 9/11, Kobach got a job as chief adviser on immigration law and border security to John Ashcroft, who was in his first year as U.S. attorney general. Kobach oversaw Department of Justice efforts to tighten border security, including the design and implementation of a system that requires foreign nationals from certain nations to register with a program that tracks their movements in and out of the U.S…When [SB 1070’s sponsor in the Arizona Senate, Russell] Pearce was ready to tackle state enforcement of federal immigration laws, he again called Kobach for help.22

In the preamble to SB 1070, the strategy of “enforcement through attrition” is clearly identified as the intention: “The legislature finds that there is a compelling interest in the cooperative enforcement of federal immigration laws throughout all of Arizona. The legislature declares that the intent of this act is to make attrition through enforcement the public policy of all state and local government agencies in Arizona.”23

The FAIR strategy was taken up wholeheartedly by Arizona’s right-wing politicos as a way to capitalize on the anxiety and instability generated by economic recession and underlying racial tensions coming out into the open in the state. Others see it as a resume-builder, or the means to push through their own racist pet projects.

The border militarization strategy that began under Democrat Bill Clinton has re-routed a large percentage of migrant crossings through the state’s southern desert region, providing the useful pretext for the onslaught against the immigrant and Latino community. Arizona politicians have used this to manufacture an “out-of-control border” scenario in order to soften and misshape public perceptions. For instance, in a recent speech from the Arizona Senate floor, moderate-turned-immigration-hawk John McCain bemoaned “that the failure to secure that border between Arizona and Mexico ‘has led to violence—the worst I have ever seen.’”24 It was in fact, the shooting death of South Arizona rancher Robert Krentz by an alleged undocumented immigrant that provided the grist for Governor Jan Brewer to justify signing SB 1070 into law. Even though it came to light shortly thereafter that an immigrant was not responsible for the shooting, the process moved forward anyway without so much as a murmur.

In reality, government data dispels the “out-of-control border” scenario. According to 2009 data from the FBI Uniform Crime Reports cited in the Arizona Republic,

While the nation’s [undocumented] population doubled from 1994 to 2004, according to federal records, the violent-crime rate declined 35 percent. More recently, Arizona’s violent-crime rate dropped from 512 incidents per 100,000 residents in 2005 to 447 incidents in 2008, the most recent year for which data is available…Cochise County’s crime rate has been “flat” for at least 10 years, the sheriff added. Even in 2000, when record numbers of undocumented immigrants were detained in the area, just 4 percent of the area’s violent crimes were committed by [undocumented immigrants].25

This led Clarence Dupnik, the sheriff of Pima County, to conclude, “This is a media-created event…I hear politicians on TV saying the border has gotten worse. Well, the fact of the matter is that the border has never been more secure.”26 Moreover, the FBI Uniform Crime Reports also found that the top four big cities with the lowest crime rates are all in border states: San Diego, Phoenix, El Paso, and Austin. Violent crime rates in southwest border counties overall have been steadily dropping and are among the lowest in the country. Another recent study conducted by the Customs and Border Protection (CBP) found that Border Patrol agents face far less danger than their police counterparts in U.S. cities.27

Despite this trend, members of Congress from border states continue to push for more militarization. As immigrant advocate Isabel Garcia of the Tucson-based Derechos Humanos asserted in the Arizona Daily Star, “Politicians are hyping up this incredible fear across the country about the border, but these numbers show these are lies being perpetrated on the American public.”28 The impact of such fear mongering becomes apparent in the polls. A May 2010 CBS/New York Times Poll that showed the percentage of U.S. respondents who considered immigration a “very serious problem” increased to 65 percent by the time the Arizona law had passed, compared to 56 percent in 2007 and 54 percent in 2006.29 This, despite all the indicators dispelling the various threats associated with immigration.

When the immigrant-as-criminal approach becomes too slippery to carry, the focus shifts to jobs and protecting Arizona’s workers from recession, a crisis now associated with immigrant workers. According to the Arizona Republic, job opportunities for college graduates in the state have plummeted in recent years. In 2007, 51 percent of graduates found work; by 2009 this number dropped to 20 percent.

The recession has been especially tough on young workers. As the economy has shed jobs by the thousands, many four-year college graduates have had trouble launching careers, languishing in lower-paying jobs. Historically, those with similar circumstances find it hard to get the same career opportunities and earn as much as those with college degrees who graduate in better times. Those with just a high-school education face even more difficult challenges.30

The linking of unemployment to the presence of immigrant workers has been taken up in opportunistic fashion by the Arizona Republicans. Joe Arpaio, the notorious sheriff who has gained national attention for his “crime suppression sweeps” in Latino communities, chain gangs, tent-city prisons, and immigrant-hunting civilian posses, has rebranded himself defender of Arizona’s native-born workers. For example, speaking at a recent pro–SB 1070 rally, Arpaio boasted that his department has arrested or detained 38,000 undocumented workers to date, claiming that his actions are creating jobs. “We have an unemployment problem; every time we arrest someone in the workplace, were making room for someone in this country legally.”31 Other politicians have latched onto the effort to build their own careers or to simply “go after the Latinos.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer forged a career out of criminalizing immigrants. As secretary of state she promoted Proposition 200, which cut off the few, meager social services available to undocumented immigrants in the state and mandated that all voters show proof of citizenship at the polls. She investigated Arizona’s welfare agencies to make sure they excluded all ineligible immigrants, and helped craft the final version of SB 1070. As a politician with a mediocre career record who only attained the governor’s seat by constitutional succession after Janet Napolitano vacated it to work in the Obama administration, Brewer has had faced an uphill battle to retain her post. This was observed by the Arizona Republic:

“She is running in a primary that leans heavily to the right,” [Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose] Wilcox said. “She had to outright the right, and that’s what she did.” Telephone polling since Brewer signed SB 1070 suggests her decision sat well with would-be voters in the August Republican primary. Both her job-approval ratings and her lead over her opponents appeared to have gotten a boost in Rasmussen Reports surveys released over the past month.32

Seeking to salvage a flagging political campaign on the backs of undocumented immigrants has become an increasingly popular sport in Republican circles in other states. The Republican governor’s primary race in California between Meg Whitman and Steve Poizner, for instance, degenerated into a vitriolic slap-fight and a one-upmanship contest over who can make the lives of California’s immigrants more miserable. According to the Los Angeles Times, Poizner sought to overcome Whitman’s advantage by waving the “bloody-red” shirt of anti-immigration.

His campaign for governor on the ropes, Republican Steve Poizner has been blaming illegal immigration for the state’s troubled schools, its crowded emergency rooms and some of its massive budget deficit. Last week he began airing ads accusing GOP front-runner Meg Whitman of mimicking President Obama in her positions on illegal immigration—specifically, a comment she made last year about envisioning “a path to legalization” for undocumented workers.33

Whitman won the primary by taking right-wing positions on immigration. This included a promise to end “sanctuary cities,” referring to city governments that refuse to allow local police to engage in immigration enforcement, and declaring her opposition to any form of “amnesty.”34 While she has said that she opposes SB 1070, she also believes it should stand now that it has passed.35 Shamelessly, after winning, she then reached out to Latino voters with a flurry of ads in Spanish that emphasized her opposition to SB 1070 and California’s 1994 Proposition 187 that would have denied education, health, and other services to undocumented families if it had passed. None of her ads remind “voters that her campaign chairman is former Gov. Pete Wilson, a top proponent of Proposition 187 and still an unpopular figure among state Latinos.”36

SB 1070 opened the door wide enough for other reactionary laws and policies linking anti-immigration to the broader Latino community. The recent passage of HB 2281, for instance, bans ethnic studies courses in K-12 schools under the pretense that they advocate the “race and class resentment” and promote “ethnic solidarity.” A pet project of State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, the bill targets a successful ethnic studies program in the Tucson Unified School District that has been linked to higher student performance. Horne has been advocating the upending of the ethnic studies program since 2007, when he published “An Open Letter to the Citizens of Tucson,” unsuccessfully urging them to abolish the program.37 When this failed, he turned to conservative lawmakers in the Arizona legislature and found a hearing. Horne is hoping this law will help propel his campaign for state attorney general in the coming elections.

The attack on education also opened the door for SB 1070 supporters to go after Latino teachers. Republican partisans within the Arizona Department of Education have recently established a policy that requires “heavily accented teachers” and those “lacking fluency” to be removed from developmental English classes throughout Arizona’s school districts. Qualifications are to be ostensibly determined by school officials, even though English proficiency was theoretically a condition of the original hiring process. In practice, this will likely empower administrators to remove “undesirable” teachers based on individually determined characteristics. It also makes the whole community of Latino and immigrant teachers suspect and vulnerable at a time when many are already taking a stand for their academic rights, and the civil rights of their immigrant students. As the Wall Street Journal has pointed out,

The teacher controversy comes amid an increasingly tense debate over immigration. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer this month signed the nation’s toughest law to crack down on illegal immigrants. Critics charge that the broader political climate has emboldened state education officials to target immigrant teachers at a time when a budget crisis has forced layoffs. “This is just one more indication of the incredible anti-immigrant sentiment in the state,” said Bruce Merrill, a professor emeritus at Arizona State University who conducts public-opinion research.38

This kind of institutional targeting of Latinos and their civil and political rights are likely to increase as the immigration debate devolves into a racial debate. According to Steven Nuño, Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University, this represents a demographic and generational conflict in a state where a conservative and entrenched white political structure feels threatened.

Latinos in Arizona are quite young, averaging twenty-five years old, while the Non-Hispanic white population is in their electoral prime, forty-four years old. Combined with Latino’s higher birthrates, Latinos are simply pushing Non-Hispanic whites out the back door and the institution is fighting back, as hopeless as it is.

Citizenship status remains the greatest structural barrier to participation for Latinos. More than a third of Latinos in Arizona are not citizens, and therefore ineligible to vote. However, even among citizens, Latinos in Arizona lag their Non-Hispanic white counterparts, with only 37 percent of Latino citizens voting in 2008 and 52 percent of eligible residents registered to vote. While Latinos make up 14 percent of those registered to vote in Arizona, they only make up 12 percent of Arizona’s voters in 2008. If Latinos participated at the same rates as Non-Hispanic whites, they would make up 21 percent of Arizona’s voters, nearly double. Even more daunting to the system, if non-citizens were given a clear pathway to citizenship and participated at the same rate, they would make up more than 32 percent of Arizona’s voters. Rolling out the welcome mat to Latinos may result in doubling their participation rates, and favorable citizenship laws could result in tripling the current electoral power of Latinos. Arizonans seem unwilling to do either without a fight.39

In the anti-immigrant frenzy unleashed in Arizona, overt acts of racism are increasingly crawling out into the open—and open racists are feeling emboldened to act. For example, the central Arizona city of Prescott gained attention recently when artists from the Downtown Mural Project were asked to “whiten” the faces of children they were painting in a mural at Miller Valley Elementary School. As artist R.E. Wall told the Arizona Republic,

“We consistently, for two months, had people shouting racial slander from their cars,” Wall said. “We had children painting with us, and here come these yells of (epithet for Blacks) and (epithet for Hispanics).” Wall said school Principal Jeff Lane pressed him to make the children’s faces appear happier and brighter.

“It is being lightened because of the controversy,” Wall said.40

Neo-Nazi and other unabashed hate groups have become so comfortable operating under the Arizona sun that they are no longer seeking the anonymity of the crowd. So much so that even less extreme anti-immigrant groups such as the Americans for Legal Immigration PAC (ALIPAC) have tried to distance themselves from some recent pro SB 1070 rallies. According to a recent article in Mother Jones, “[t]he group says it is withdrawing its support from any rallies supporting the Arizona law next month ‘due to the discovery of racist group involvement and the actions of former Congressman Tom Tancredo.’”41

Merely a few weeks after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer made the wildly false and dangerous claim that the “majority of the illegal trespassers that are coming into the state of Arizona are under the direction and control of organized drug cartels and they are bringing drugs in,” a reputed Neo-Nazi in southern Arizona took that as his cue.42 Jason “J.T.” Ready and the “National Socialist Movement” took matters into their own hands, organizing armed patrols and “declaring war on ‘narco-terrorists’ and keeping an eye out for illegal immigrants.”43

With the rapid deterioration of rational discourse on immigration and the lack of a prominent pro-immigrant alternative to counter this trend, does this mean public opinion has turned against legalization? A look beneath the surface of recent opinion polls reveals a more complex situation.

Is the public becoming anti-immigrant?
Supporters of SB 1070 have trumpeted a Pew Research Center opinion poll that showed that 59 percent of respondents nationally favor the Arizona law. Even higher numbers (67 percent) support police involvement in immigration enforcement according to its findings.44 It is certain that this poll shows that public opinion has been battered by a suffocating barrage of anti-immigrant propaganda. There is no doubt that the emboldened anti-immigrant crowd is finding some success exploiting the recession-induced fear and instability wracking many households. Most likely, many who felt inspired by the immigrant rights marches and accepted the mantra of “today we march, tomorrow we vote”—and then voted Democrat—are now dazed. It is probable that for many who bought into the Obama campaign at that electrifying moment when great change seemed urgent and unstoppable—are now shopping elsewhere for hope or something that resembles it. Despite these changing dynamics, the evidence continues to show that most people continue to support legalization, but it will take a whole new approach if we are to realize it.

A 2007 Pew Research Poll showed that 63 percent of the population supported a “path to citizenship” for the nation’s undocumented workforce. By April of 2009, another Pew poll found the same percent continued to support legalization although it became more polarized along partisan lines (73 percent for self-identified Democrats to 50 percent for Republicans).45 A May 2009 CNN poll found that two out three respondents supported legalization.46 A May 2010 CNN/Opinion Research Corporation poll found that while there is a substantial increase in support for enforcement measures, 80 percent of respondents nationally support “Creating a program that would allow illegal immigrants already living in the United States for a number of years to stay here and apply to legally remain in this country permanently if they had a job and paid back taxes.”47

Deconstructing the opinion polls shows that Latinos and younger people disproportionately oppose SB 1070 and anti-immigrant laws in general. A May Wall Street Journal/NBC poll show 70 percent of Latinos nationally oppose the bill.48 An April/May Latino Decisions field poll found that 81 percent of Latinos in Arizona oppose the bill.49 This reveals a depth of understanding and experience that links criminalization of immigrants to racism and discrimination against Latinos in general.

Young people are also disproportionately pro-immigrant rights. An April/May New York Times/CBS poll

found that Americans 45 and older were more likely than the young to say the Arizona law was “about right” (as opposed to “going too far” or “not far enough”). Boomers were also more likely to say that “no newcomers” should be allowed to enter the country while more young people favored a “welcome all” approach…for instance, while 41 percent of Americans ages 45 to 64 and 36 percent of older Americans said immigration levels should be decreased, only 24 percent of those younger than 45 said so.50

Another poll conducted in California by the Los Angeles Times/USC College of Letters, Arts and Sciences, found that while the state’s population is evenly split on the question of making public services available to undocumented immigrants, respondents aged 18-29 rejected the denial of public services by a 20-point margin while voters over 65 supported it by 12 points. This same group also overwhelmingly perceives undocumented immigrants as contributing positively to the state.51

Drilling down beneath the support for SB 1070 is also revealing. According to an America’s Voice bipartisan poll conducted in June, 84 percent of national respondents who support SB 1070 also support comprehensive immigration reform that includes legalization.


Support for comprehensive immigration reform is overwhelming. Support for comprehensive reform jumps from 57 percent–18 percent support to a 78 percent–16 percent margin after respondents hear a description of the reform proposal [including legalization]. The support is broad-based, crosses party lines, and stays consistent across the country, with especially high levels of support seen among Republicans (84 percent–12 percent support) and voters in border states (81 percent–13 percent support).52

The numbers are similar in Arizona. According to another Latino Decisions poll co-sponsored by the National Council of La Raza and the Service Employees International Union:

While 67 percent of Arizona voters express support for SB1070, a whopping 77 percent also support federal reform that includes both enforcement and a path to citizenship. Asking about support for SB1070 without also asking about comprehensive immigration reform belies what public opinion research has repeatedly shown: that a majority of Americans—across regions and party lines—believe a federal overhaul of our broken immigration system that includes a path to legalization is the only way to end illegal immigration and move our country forward.53

Polls also reveal that respondents believe laws like SB 1070 will increase racial discrimination against Latinos. According to an August Arizona Republic poll, 48 percent of Arizonans believe that “Latinos are more likely to be discriminated against compared with non-Latinos than they were six months ago…Nearly half of Arizonans also believe the immigration debate has revealed racial problems here and that Latinos are more likely to have their legal status questioned than they were at the start of the year.”54 Another Arizona Republic poll conducted in late July and amongst a broader pool of Arizonans, revealed a declining base of support for SB 1070. After two months of constant protest against the law’s implementation and a national boycott campaign against the state showed that support for the law had declined from 70 percent to 55 percent of respondents. Of this group, more respondents (38 percent) think it will have little or no effect on undocumented immigration than those (27 percent) who think it will largely or completely resolve the issue. Nationally, support dropped from 64 percent to 59 percent.55

Three significant things emerge from these polls. First, that support for legalization is a constant element that continues to enjoy majority support. Second, that the bipartisan campaign to criminalize and punish undocumented workers has had an impact on public opinion, showing that it is vulnerable to the ubiquitous immigration fear-mongering that substitutes for rational discourse. On the other hand, the national protest movement against SB 1070 has exposed the realities of the law and eroded support. Third, it shows that younger people and Latinos—key demographic sectors of the population that will greatly affect the next generation of politics—are far more advanced in their understanding of the issue. They are more pro-immigrant than the rest of the population, and increasingly impatient with the conservative positions of the Democratic Party that has continuously taken their support for granted.

These polls should also tell us that if there were a sustained, grassroots, pro-immigrant social movement that challenges the bipartisan campaign against immigrants, that public opinion could be shifted in favor of legalization for all undocumented immigrant workers and their families without criminalization. This movement—taking shape today in the belly of Arizona—has the power to change the equation. This will require not only confronting the racism and the campaigns of the reactionaries, but the opposition from the Obama administration and the Democratic Party as well.

History has shown that opinion polls don’t determine policy; action does. It also shows that civil rights victories have always been fought for and won through struggle, often against much greater opposition than immigrant rights activist face today. It would be worthwhile to revisit the strategies and tactics that have defeated earlier forms of segregation. As a recent New York Times editorial commented,

Good immigration reform needs a good bill, and the administration and the president and Democratic leaders haven’t yet offered or convincingly fought for one. The fight for reform is stalled. It could be simple acts of protest that ignite a fire. Half a century ago it was young people, at lunch counters and aboard buses across the South, who help galvanize the movement for civil rights, and to waken more powerful elders to injustice.56

In the next stage of the immigrant rights movement, activists will have to reevaluate their relationship to the Democratic Party and the corporate politics, the concessionary strategies, and the right-wing accommodation that allowed for the spawning of Arizona’s SB 1070. While the Obama administration filed an 11th-hour legal challenge to prevent implementation of the law that has temporarily blocked some of its most pernicious elements, SB 1070 is in effect, and new alignments of reaction are forming and mustering. Nevertheless, the sweltering Arizona streets have also produced and galvanized a new movement for immigrant rights. Activists are now showing a willingness to go beyond the limited, electoral strategies that have only set the movement back. The powerful workers’ movement that emerged in the form of a mass strike and boycott on May 1, 2006, that led to the defeat of the notorious Sensenbrenner-King bill of 2005 also informs the struggle against SB 1070 today. It shows that reactionary policies can be defeated through a strategy of direct action by ordinary people, political confrontation with the institutions enforcing injustice, and the disruption of business as usual approach that increasingly ignores symbolic actions. How well we can learn these lessons will determine if the Brewers, Arpaios, Pearces, and Hornes around the country will rise or fall in the coming years.

  1. Suzanne Gamboa, “Obama takes immigration reform off agenda,” Associated Press, April 29, 2010.
  2. Joe Arpaio came to San Diego in November 2009 to campaign for County Sheriff candidate Jay LaSuer, who boasted that he would run the county.
  3. As an example, the pro-SB 1070 Sheriff Paul Babeu of Pinal County, Arizona, spoke on a white nationalist radio show. See Brahm Resnik, “Pinal County Sheriff: Obama near ‘borderline’ of treason,” Arizona Republic, July 23, 2010.
  4. For an in-depth analysis of the Gutierrez bill, see Orlando Sepúlveda, “Is the Gutierrez bill good for immigrants?” Socialist Worker, January 21, 2010.
  5. Jared Allen, “Speaker Pelosi to shield vulnerable members from controversial votes,” The Hill, December 16, 2009.
  6. Ginger Thompson and David M. Herszenhorn, “Obama set for first step on immigration reform,” New York Times, June 24, 2009.
  7. Sam Stein, “Confidential study suggests tougher words for dems on immigration“ Huffington Post, February 29, 2008,
  8. Posted on Schumer’s Web site,
  9. Janet Napolitano, “U.S. pursuing integrated strategy for border problems,” Houston Chronicle, August 14, 2009.
  10. Richard Marosi and Anna Gorman, “Immigration agency targets upscale San Diego restaurant,” Los Angeles Times, May 25, 2010.
  11. Spencer S. Hsu and N.C. Aizenman, “DHS corrects report that overstated ICE deportations under Obama,” Washington Post, March 8, 2010.
  12. Meredith Simons, “Obama beefs up border security in 2011 budget,” San Francisco Chronicle, February 1, 2010.
  13. See Schumer’s Web site for full description of the “seven principles” of immigration reform.
  14. Spencer S. Hsu, “Senate Democrats’ plan highlights nation’s shift to the right on immigration,” Washington Post, May 2010.
  15. Lisa Mascaro, “Senate sends last-minute bills to the House before recess,” Los Angeles Times, August 6, 2010.
  16. David Bacon, “Firing immigrants,” Progressive, December 2009/January 2010.
  17. See John Schmitt, “Unions and upward mobility for immigrant workers,” Center for Economic and Policy Research, March 2010,
  18. See Patrick O’Connor, “Immigration split still hangs over McCain and Republicans,”
  19. Nicole Gaouette, “An immigration end run around the next president,” Los Angeles Times, June 23, 2008.
  20. Tom Barry, “Planning the war on immigrants,” Americas Program, Center for International Policy (CIP), December 13, 2007.
  21. Julia Preston, “Firm stance on illegal immigrants remains policy,” New York Times, August 3, 2009.
  22. Alia Beard Rau, “Arizona immigration law was crafted by activist,” Arizona Republic, May 31, 2010.
  23. Senate Bill 1070.
  24. Dennis Wagner, “Violence is not up on Arizona border,” Arizona Republic, May 2, 2010.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Ibid.
  27. See Tim Padgett, “The ‘dangerous’ border: Actually one of America’s safest places,” Time, July 30, 2010.
  28. Martha Mendoza, “Border is relatively safe, gov’t data show,” Associated Press, June 4, 2010.
  29. Stephanie Condon, “ Poll: Most still support Arizona immigration law,” CBS News, May 25, 2010.
  30. Betty Beard, “Arizona jobs outlook for recent college graduates bleak, but improving,” Arizona Republic, June 6, 2010.
  31. go here for a full accounting of Joe Arpaio’s record as sheriff of Maricopa County.
  32. Ginger Rough, “Signing Arizona immigration law was never a question for governor,” Arizona Republic, June 1, 2010.
  33. Cathleen Decker, “Steve Poizner zeros in on an untimely issue,” Los Angeles Times, March 28, 2010.
  34. Teddy Davis, “Meg Whitman alters immigration rhetoric,” ABC News Online, March 16, 2010.
  35. “Whitman: Arizona immigration law OK for Arizona,” Sacramento Bee, July 29, 2010.
  36. Jack Chang, “Meg Whitman courts Latinos with Spanish-language TV ads,” Sacramento Bee, June 18, 2010.
  37. Text of “Open Letter” available here.
  38. Miriam Jordan, “Arizona grades teachers on fluency,” Wall Street Journal, April 30, 2010.
  39. 39 Stephen A. Nuño, “Is Arizona 2010 like California 1994?” Latino Decisions, May 24, 2010.
  40. Dennis Wagner, “Altered mural fuels racial debate in Prescott,” Arizona Republic, June 4, 2010.
  41. Suzy Khimm, “Anti-Immigration group claims neo-nazis involved in Tancredo rally,” Mother Jones, May 19, 2010.
  42. Paul Davenport, “Brewer claims most illegal immigrants are smuggling drugs,” Associated Press, June 26, 2010.
  43. Michelle Price, “Reputed neo-Nazi joins border action,” Associated Press, July 18, 2010.
  44. Pew Research Center, “Public supports Arizona immigration law,” May 12, 2010.
  45. See America’s Voice online for a discussion and analysis of these polls.
  46. Despite the tough-sounding headline (“CNN Poll: 3 out of 4 want illegal immigration decreased,” October 22, 2009).
  47. Poll data available online here.
  48. Susan Davis, “WSJ/NBC Poll: Hispanics strongly oppose Ariz. immigration law,” Wall Street Journal, May 12, 2010.
  49. “Latino voters strongly reject Arizona immigration law 1070,” Latino Decisions, May 6, 2010.
  50. Damian Cave, “A generation gap over immigration,” New York Times, May 17, 2010.
  51. “Fewer Californians support cutting illegal immigration benefits, Times/USC poll finds,” Los Angeles Times, April 4, 2010.
  52. “Bipartisan Poll: In Arizona Aftermath, Public Demands National Immigration Reform,” America’s Voice.
  53. Poll data available here.
  54. Ronald J. Hansen and Sean Holstege, “Poll: Debate over new Arizona immigration law may heighten racism in state,” Arizona Republic, August 2, 2010.
  55. Ronald J. Hansen, “Poll: Politics, age sway opinions on immigration law,” Arizona Republic, July 25, 2010.
  56. Editorial, “Courage in Arizona,” New York Times, May 19, 2010.

Issue #103

Winter 2016-17

"A sense of hope and the possibility for solidarity"

Interview with Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz
Issue contents

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