Revolution#123, March 16, 2008

The Growing Nightmare for Immigrants in Arizona

Four students from a Phoenix high school who were picked up by immigration authorities while on a school trip to Niagara Falls and threatened with deportation. [Photo: AP]

Maricopa County, Arizona: A pregnant teenager is held captive in a house, along with more than 50 other immigrants. They are locked in rooms with no furniture and jugs of human waste. When her family in Mexico doesn’t immediately pay the thousands of dollars demanded, she is dragged into a bathroom. Her young husband hears her screaming as she is beaten for a half hour. She miscarries, and her bloody clothing is left lying on the floor.

Yet she and every other person in the house are subject to felony charges under Arizona law, of “conspiring with themselves” to smuggle themselves across the border. Some are arrested—all are deported. This is just one peek into the nightmare for immigrants in Maricopa County which has escalated dramatically recently, one which has arisen out of the complex and underlying dynamics of this system.

Immigrants in Maricopa County describe being so terrorized that they are afraid to leave their homes. In a recent article, Phoenix New Times interviewed a number of immigrants, including Daniela, who came to the U.S. 13 years ago.

Daniela doesn’t go more than three blocks from her house, and then only to her children’s elementary school. She never drives—the chance of being pulled over for driving while brown is too great.  She never walks alone—if she’s picked up, no one will know what happened. She has very few friends—thanks to the atmosphere of immigrant bashing and the “Illegal Immigrant Hotline,” anyone she meets might turn her in. She can’t shop—the sheriff has officers at Food City. She can’t call the police if she witnesses a crime—they’ll ask about her status and she’ll be deported. Her children can’t sleep through the night—they have nightmares about their parents being disappeared.

This is the situation for hundreds of thousands throughout the county—and not just for immigrants but all brown-skinned people. They are literally being forced into the shadows, into their homes, away from even each other. Attendance at predominantly immigrant churches is down by as much as a third, as parishioners are too afraid to come.

Along with the legislative assaults, police raids and vigilante violence, there has also been a significant increase in crimes against immigrants. Just as in the South (and beyond), there was no crime that couldn’t be committed without impunity against a Black person, the system has created “open season” conditions for anyone who wants to prey on immigrants.

In the last few years, Arizona has passed a series of steadily more draconian laws targeting immigrants. A ballot measure, reinforced by the State Senate, denied bail for undocumented immigrants accused of serious crimes. Another mandated English as the official language. A statute made it a crime to transport, harbor, or hire undocumented immigrants. And a law supposedly designed to target “coyotes” who bring immigrants into the U.S. has been interpreted to mean than any undocumented immigrant is guilty of conspiring to smuggle themselves, a class-four felony. (Other states have been following Arizona’s lead. For example, Oklahoma passed a law denying bail to undocumented immigrants, and Colorado, Nebraska, and Idaho are considering similar legislation.)

These laws, and the widespread promotion of hatred against immigrants, have steadily tightened a noose around immigrants in Arizona and have provided a legal foundation for an assault on immigrant communities.

Maricopa County Sheriff Arpaio accosts people arrested in Phoenix accused of being illegal immigrants. [Photo: AP]

In Arizona’s Maricopa County, a racist campaign of terror is being spearheaded by Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas. Arpaio is infamous for his policies of humiliating prisoners and suspects. He has institutionalized racial profiling on a massive scale and unleashed a crackdown in which anyone looking “illegal”—whether food vendors, college students, or day laborers—is subject to being stopped and subjected to racist insults and demands to produce proof of citizenship. If detained, they face tremendous pressure to sign a plea deal and accept deportation.

Thomas was elected on a platform of vehement anti-immigration. One of his first acts after taking office was to announce he wouldn’t prosecute a racist vigilante who held seven Mexican migrants hostage at gunpoint at a rest stop. Invoking truly Nazi-like rhetoric designed to declare some people non-humans, he has said that the U.S. “is tolerating a sub-class of people.”

The Fair and Legal Employment Act

On top of all this, on February 7, a federal judge upheld Arizona’s Fair and Legal Employment Act—a law that prohibits employers from hiring undocumented immigrants, and will suspend an employer’s business license on the first offense and will revoke it on the second. The Arizona law requires employers to check the eligibility of anyone applying for a job with the E-Verify database, an experimental and temporary federal database that is known for its high error rate.

This law affects the estimated 500,000 or more undocumented immigrants that make up 9-12 percent of the workforce in the state of Arizona, mostly in service, construction, and landscaping, according to Arizona State University. The law also requires the Attorney General or local county attorneys to investigate all complaints about unauthorized workers. It represents a leap in the systematic clampdown on and persecution of immigrants in this country.

Governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano, the “moderate” Democrat who signed the law, said she thinks that the law could result in a business “death penalty”—however, she said it was better than an “even more draconian” ballot initiative that might be introduced if nothing is done to enforce the immigration laws. And, having signed the law, she’s now enforcing this draconian law. Arizona officials were mandated to comply with this anti-immigrant work enforcement law, the largest and strictest in the country, on March 1. County Attorney Thomas has promised to aggressively enforce the law, even saying that he believes the law can be enforced retroactively.

Employers have already begun laying off immigrant workers, and this has had repercussions throughout their communities. Local restaurants and shops have closed down because there are not enough customers. Schools, apartment complexes, and neighborhoods have seen large numbers of Latino families moving out of the state. One elementary school in west Phoenix has reported that enrollment has declined by 525.

Contradictions at the Top—Need for Breakthroughs from Below

Businesses and organizations like the state Chamber of Commerce, the Arizona Contractors Association, the AZ Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, and the Arizona Landscape Contractors Association are strongly opposed to the Fair and Legal Employment Act. They argue that the law will mean that Arizona will be shooting itself in the foot by driving out immigrants who are so critical to the economy. The Wall Street Journal recently quoted University of Arizona immigration expert Judith Gans as stating, “Getting rid of [undocumented] workers means that we are deciding as a matter of policy to shrink the economy.”

When all is said and done, the capitalists need the immigrants—both to keep the U.S. economy profitable and because the money they send home helps to maintain stability within Mexico. This fundamental necessity conflicts with the need to maintain and strengthen the “glue” of nativist anti-immigrant chauvinism—a key part of keeping U.S. society intact.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department members at a news conference called by Sheriff Joe Arpaio announcing the kick off of enforcing the new immigration law. [Photo: AP]

There is an intense contradiction for the U.S. ruling class. On the one hand, they need to superexploit undocumented immigrants. On the other hand, they need to strengthen the whole cohering structure of society—to “keep it all together” and keep their setup intact. And then, there are contradictions within the ruling class on how to manage all this, and those contradictions are getting played out in different ways. Last summer, Congress failed to pass highly repressive immigration “reform” legislation pushed by Bush. That legislation would have increased the militarization of the border, set up a “guest worker” program to keep immigrant workers in slave-like conditions, and set up a “legalization” system—the main element of which would be to force undocumented immigrants to register with the government. Reactionary opposition to the bill in the ruling class stopped its passage, accompanied by a frenzy of attacks on immigrants. Since then, attacks on immigrants have intensified. On the federal level, border militarization is moving ahead. Waves of factory raids by armed agents of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) are spreading terror in immigrant communities. And then, on the local level, cities across the country are passing laws to drive undocumented workers out by punishing those who employ or rent to them. And the new levels of repression being implemented in Arizona are breaking new ground in all this.

The nightmare for immigrants in Maricopa County illustrates the kind of society we are living in, and the kind we are moving toward—one where people are increasingly terrorized, hunted down, separated from their kids, and deported—just because they have no official documents.

In this situation, all sections of the people, including the proletarians of all nationalities, urgently need to wage political struggle to beat back these escalating attacks on immigrants, with an eye towards greater upheaval to come, including potentially revolutionary upheaval.

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