A Nation Divided

The proliferation of anti-immigrant legislation

by Kate Wihtol, editor; photo by Phoebe Parker-Shames, editor

It was an early weekday morning in August when Maria Salazar* saw the flashing lights of a police car in her rearview mirror. A South Tucson, Arizona police officer walked up to her window, and what began as a routine stop over a broken taillight quickly developed into one of the scariest moments of her life. Suspicious of her Mexican driver’s license and inability to speak English, the officer called Border Patrol.  A Border Patrol agent came to investigate the situation and sent Maria to a nearby detention center to be held until her unauthorized status was confirmed. Ms. Salazar, the single mother of three young children, is now in the process of deportation and awaits her trial date in December.

What transpired that morning was entirely legal. While collaboration between police and Border Patrol over petty crimes like a broken taillight is typically discouraged by both agencies, cases such as Ms. Salazar’s are becoming more and more frequent. While sentiments of intolerance have slowly been building within border states, the proposal of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 in April marked the onset of a surge of xenophobia and nativism. The law, euphemistically titled the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” would have required police officers to verify the immigration status of individuals whom they stop, detain, or arrest if they have “reasonable suspicion” to believe the individual is in the country illegally. SB 1070 would have also required non-citizens to carry their immigration papers at all times and would have prohibited undocumented day-laborers from soliciting or performing work.

A sign at the SB 1070 protest in front of Colorado Springs City Hall last April.

Though a federal judge blocked these three most controversial sections of SB 1070 from becoming law in late July, the fight is certainly not over. Several other important sections did pass into law. It is now a crime to pick up and transport day laborers across the state and for Arizona state officials to interfere with or refrain from enforcement of federal immigration laws. Transporting or harboring undocumented immigrants is also illegal, and the vehicle used for such transportation may be impounded. The bill’s author, Republican State Senator Russell Pearce, is now pursuing even more radical ideas.

Pearce, who touts himself as one of the most outspoken advocates for stopping the “illegal invasion,” has churned out scores of bills opposing illegal immigration in his ten years in the Arizona state government. His pet projects include imposing the nation’s toughest employer sanctions program, making English Arizona’s official language, and refusing bail bond to any undocumented immigrant who commits a serious crime.

Pearce’s newest project targets children of immigrants. The law, intended for the 2011 legislative session, would “refuse to accept or issue birth certificates to children of undocumented immigrants,” unless one parent is a citizen. This would, in effect, abolish the first sentence of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution: “all persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.” These so-called “anchor babies,” Pearce argues, are responsible for luring their undocumented mothers and other relatives into permanent U.S. residency. What’s more, the same bill would reportedly include a financial penalty for these children’s public school attendance.

Rumors of such forthcoming laws are stirring  up fear and anger within the immigrant community. “I didn’t come here to have children,” affirms Ms. Salazar over the phone. “[Immigrants] come to this country for work, for a healthier life and better education for our children.” Yet to Ms. Salazar’s dismay, Pearce is by no means lacking in support.  Despite the mass protests and criticism surrounding SB 1070 this summer, similar proposed legislation is popping up all over the country.   Legislators from other states, including Colorado, are heading to Phoenix for advice on designing their own versions of the bill.   According to the Reform Immigration for America Campaign, legislators in twenty-two states have announced their intent to do just that.  These SB 1070 imitations have already been introduced in Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island.

Florida Attorney General and Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill McCollum follows closest in Pearce’s footsteps. His proposed legislation goes “one step beyond” Arizona’s law, he boasts. In addition to requiring law enforcement to check the immigration status of suspected undocumented immigrants who are stopped legally, the law would allow judges to penalize undocumented immigrants more severely than legal residents and U.S. citizens who commit the same crimes. Florida immigrants would also be required to carry proof of legal immigration status or face up to twenty days in prison.

Such action by individual states is likely to result in chaotic immigration laws that differ from one state border to the next. As the midterm elections approach, Republicans and Democrats alike are using immigration as a wedge issue rather than seeking a fix for the broken system we observe today. Despite Obama’s urge to “reform our creaky system of legal immigration” in his July 1 speech, the federal government continually fails to take up the issue in Congress. While the problems surrounding immigration are tremendously complex, there must be a better answer than victimizing harmless individuals and their family members who seek an improved way of life.

“These politicians have a hatred towards immigrants,” says Manuel Bernal*, an undocumented immigrant from Northern Mexico who has lived in Tucson for twelve years. “Their [anti-immigrant] laws do nothing for our state—they   only fortify the divisions within our society.” Bernal has seen his friends and family subjected to racial profiling and abuses of authority and he is now actively involved in protecting immigrant rights. He sees a solution in empowering the Latino community through civic engagement. “Here in Arizona, statistics show that the majority of Latinos don’t vote. They are the people who can make the difference,” he asserts. “We need to be careful with who we elect and choose leaders who look after our cities and states.” With Latinos making up over 15 percent of the U.S. population, Bernal certainly has a point. In the meantime, Pearce, McCollum, and their cohorts don’t seem to be going anywhere. With the lives and dignities of human beings at stake, it is time for the federal government to take control and thoroughly address our broken immigration system.

A Nation Divided

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