July 2010, Week 4


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Wed, 28 Jul 2010 22:24:58 -0400
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Arizona, the Anti-Immigrant Laboratory

By Todd Miller 
NACLA: North American Congress on Latin America 
July 28 2010 

Even though a federal judge blocked key controversial
provisions of Arizona's new immigration legislation
today, July 28, one of the harshest anti-immigrant laws
ever passed in the United States is still poised to go
into effect tomorrow in that state. This law, however,
didn't come out of thin air. The "zero tolerance" logic
behind the law mimics what has already been established
by the federal government. Indeed, the confluence of
these immigration, military, border, and economic
policies in Arizona has not only made it the country's
primary laboratory for draconian immigration policies,
but also connects the U.S. border zone to a broader
international context of "global apartheid."


Sixty-three men and women stood before a federal judge
in Tucson. Their wrists and ankles shackled, most had
difficulty walking to the front of the court when their
names were called. They wore the same dirty T-shirts
and torn jeans they had on as they walked through
triple-digit temperatures in the Arizona desert, where
the Border Patrol arrested them for entering the United
States without authorization. In less than half an
hour, the judge sentenced 22 of them to prison time.

This was on May 24, more than two months before
Arizona's draconian new immigration law was slated to
go into effect. With SB 1070, as the new law is called,
life for undocumented immigrants in Arizona is set to
get a whole lot worse. As critics in both the United
States and abroad have emphasized, the law
institutionalizes racial profiling by requiring that
local police demand papers from anyone they have a
"reasonable suspicion" of being undocumented. It
represents the cruelest attempt yet to close off the
border, capping a nearly 20-year history in Arizona of
cracking down on migrants.

The stage was set for SB 1070 in 2005, when the
Department of Homeland Security launched Operation
Streamline, a federal immigration-enforcement program
that targets and charges first-time border crossers
with "illegal entry." Operation Streamline is most
significant for treating undocumented migration as a
criminal, rather than a civil, infraction for the first
time. Under the program's fast-food approach to due
process, an average of 70 people are convicted and
sentenced every weekday in Tucson, often within an

That adds up to about 17,850 undocumented people who
must face a judge each year in Tucson alone, and almost
7,000 who receive prison time, ranging from 30 days to
six months. A re-entry charge carries a prison sentence
of between two and 20 years. About half receive prison
time, while the rest remain in jail as they go through
the formal deportation process, their U.S. records
permanently stained. These newly minted prisoners are
then fed to Arizona's voracious private prisons, which
constitute one of the only growth industries in a state
hit hard by the recession.

According to Caroline Isaacs, program director of
American Friends Service Committee's Tucson office,
both Operation Streamline and SB 1070 culminate a shift
begun in the 1990s to using "war-on-crime approaches to
what can only be called the war on immigrants." SB 1070
will add a Class 1 trespassing misdemeanor for being in
the state of Arizona without correct documents on top
of Operation Streamline's illegal entry charge. The
trespassing charge comes with a mandatory prison
sentence of 20 days, and the migrant will have to pay
for his or her jail costs. There are additional
penalties, including potential prison time, for
smuggling, harboring, and hiring immigrants, and even
for being hired. These various provisions, Isaacs says,
show that SB 1070 consists of "40 previous bills, all
smushed together."

How did it come to this? Though notable for its
extremism, SB 1070 obeys the same "zero tolerance"
logic behind Operation Streamline and the broader
federal "deterrence" policy that began in Arizona in
1993. That year the Border Patrol launched a series of
ongoing militarized crackdowns: Operation Hold the Line
in El Paso, Operation Gatekeeper in San Diego, and, in
1994, Operation Safeguard in Arizona. Border Patrol
agents wielding sophisticated military technology
saturated and sealed off the traditional immigration
crossing routes in the towns of Nogales and Douglas,
and 16-foot walls went up.

President Clinton promised in 1994 that the immigration
"problems" would be solved with the implementation
NAFTA, which would supposedly boost employment in
Mexico. But the promise of more and better-paying jobs
south of the border proved false; in fact, NAFTA only
worsened the poverty in Mexico. The free trade
agreement unleashed an unprecedented exodus of Mexicans
into the United States, an average of 500,000 each year
since 1994. Many of them were funneled into Arizona's
dangerous desert, which claims an average 200 migrant
lives each year. Arizona became the U.S.-Mexico
border's immigration hot spot, a prime location to
experiment with border enforcement policy.

The more than a decade and a half since NAFTA has seen
the rise of two parastatal elements associated with
Arizona's enforcement apparatus: private prisons and
vigilante groups. In the late 1990s, the Immigration
and Naturalization Service threw the almost dead
private prison industry a bone, offering it contracts
to imprison undocumented immigrants. Within a decade,
as migration boomed, armed vigilante groups like Ranch
Rescue, the American Border Patrol, and the Minutemen,
some associated with national white supremacist groups,
began forming in southern Arizona and patrolling the
desert for supposedly dangerous immigrants.

Few of Arizona's policy makers and officials condemned
these groups; in fact, they became essential
ingredients in Arizona's anti-immigrant laboratory.
Some of the state's police forces, instead of cracking
down on their potential illegal activities, began to
mimic them. In 2006 Maricopa County sheriff Joseph
Arpaio, almost on cue from these groups, created a 250-
strong posse (which included volunteers) to enforce a
2005 state anti-smuggling law under which undocumented
immigrants could be charged with criminal conspiracy, a
felony, to smuggle themselves into the United States.
He established a tent city equipped to hold 2,000
prisoners, mostly undocumented immigrants, where male
prisoners were forced to wear pink underwear.

"I'm the only agency enforcing this law," Arpaio told
Fox News, responding to criticism, "and I'm going to
put up tents up from here to Mexico if I have to keep
these illegals incarcerated." As the Phoenix New Times
pointed out, SB 1070 simply legalizes what Arpaio was
already doing. In Arizona vigilante practices have
become vigilante policies, and SB 1070 could be the
Arizona laboratory's most potent poison yet.

"I lived in the South Africa," wrote Nobel Peace Prize
winner Desmond Tutu on April 28, reflecting on Arizona
" . . . where a black man or woman could be grabbed off
the street and thrown in jail for not having his or her
documents on their person. . . . Abominations such as
apartheid do not start with an entire population
suddenly becoming inhumane. They start here. They start
with generalizing unwanted characteristics across an
entire segment of the population."

Indeed, the confluence of economic, military, border,
and immigration policies in Arizona, making it the
country's primary laboratory for draconian immigration
policies, connects the U.S. border zone to a broader
international context of "global apartheid," as
geographer Joseph Nevins put it in an interview with
Znet in 2008. This collection of policies
disproportionately targets "the relatively poor" and
"largely people of color" who "in order to overcome
their deprivation and insecurity . . . risk their lives
trying to overcome ever-stronger boundary controls put
into place by rich countries. . . . " Meanwhile, Nevins
writes, privileged and mostly white people are
"generally free to travel across national boundaries
and live wherever they would like or have the means to
access the resources they `need.' "

Although President Obama has condemned SB 1070-
directing his Justice Department to review the law and
possibly challenge it in court-the administration
remains committed to Operation Streamline and to the
overall logic of militarized border policy: In May,
Obama ordered the deployment 1,200 National Guard
troops to the Southwest border region.

If history is any indication, SB 1070 will not stop
undocumented immigration. Rather, it will supply
thousands more people convicted of illegal entry to
Arizona's private prisons, providing the human raw
material for the profit of the Corrections Corporation
of America and other such companies, which have every
incentive to push for laws that will imprison as many
people as possible for as long as possible. As long as
Arizona remains an anti-immigrant laboratory, the
vicious circle of border enforcement will become only
more vicious.

Todd Miller is NACLA's editorial assistant.


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