Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Manzanar, Arizona

The Grand Canyon State is apparently about to become a very interesting place to visit as well as to live. Thanks to a toweringly insensitive and xenophobic piece of legislation signed into law on Friday by the governor of the state of Arizona, law enforcement will, starting in August or September, have the authority to detain anyone believed to be an illegal resident of the United States, upon a spot visual assessment.

If no successful legal challenges arise, all persons of outwardly Hispanic appearance will be subject to request for proof of their citizenship status, interrogation and possible arrest by Arizona law enforcement.

Going forward, all Cactus League play will be conducted under the supervision of the state police and immigration authorities; members of the ad hoc Minutemen border-patrol organization will be deputized; and major-league greats from Manny Ramirez to Mariano Rivera will be advised to remain at their team’s hotels when playing away games against the Arizona Diamondbacks later in this baseball season.

OK, that last part’s fiction, an over-the-top extrapolation of the possible application of an over-the-top law. But what ought to be frightening is just how close the reality of life in Arizona may come to that nightmare for the state’s 1.8 million residents of Latino descent. With the new law in Arizona, and the pretext for such heavy-handed legislation emotionally established in other states with high Latino populations … we’re not that far from a Manzanar situation.

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Students of the shadow history of the United States will remember Manzanar, the name of the infamous California internment camp, one of the ten where about 110,000 Japanese Americans were imprisoned after the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, and coincident with the virulent anti-Asian racism that followed in its wake. The official rationale for Manzanar and the other camps scattered throughout the western United States between 1942 and 1945 was distilled in the statement of one U.S. military leader, who described Japanese Americans in the aggregate as “a dangerous element.”

The difference between Manzanar as historical fact and a possible similar scenario in Arizona’s future isn’t that vast. In each case, legal machinery is brought to bear on a wide range of human beings based on their ethnic origin. In each case, the defense of the homeland is trotted out by various apologists as the justification for the action.

In each case, a draconian, overbroad solution was employed to remedy a problem: for Arizona, a problem in need of a better, less reactionary and divisive solution; for Manzanar, a problem that never existed in the first place.

In each case, ethnic heritage constitutes probable cause.

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Subtleties like that were lost on Jan Brewer, the state’s Republican governor, who on Friday signed into law Senate Bill 1070, a measure that makes it "a state crime for illegal immigrants to not have an alien registration document", and requiring police "to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they are illegal immigrants." Note the potentially dangerous latitude of discretion built into the phrase “reason to suspect.”

Some in the conservative ranks have already defended that imprecision and conjured their own: California Rep. Brian Bilbray said it was possible to spot an illegal immigrant on the basis of the shoes they wear.



“I firmly believe it represents what’s best for Arizona,” the governor said at the signing ceremony. “Border-related violence and crime due to illegal immigration are critically important issues to the people of our state, to my Administration and to me, as your Governor and as a citizen.

“There is no higher priority than protecting the citizens of Arizona. We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels. We cannot stand idly by as drop houses, kidnappings and violence compromise our quality of life.

“We cannot delay while the destruction happening south of our international border creeps its way north.”

(Listen for the sub rosa whispers of Brewer being touted as a GOP prospect for 2012 … any minute now.)

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The new law has its champions. Monday on MSNBC’s “Hardball,” Republican state Sen. John Huppenthal took the law-enforcement perspective, returning again and again to what he said was a 50 percent reduction in violent crime directly attributable to stepped-up efforts by Arizona law enforcement — but without fully articulating the cause and effect relationship.

“We’re getting [crime] under control, making sure that our local police officers have the power, if they so desire, to enforce all laws, not just the laws [that opponents of the new measure] are talking about, about crime, but also the federal law that makes it a crime to be in this country illegally,” he said.

But the pushback was building from before the beginning. The United Farm Workers and the National Council of La Raza circulated petitions against the measure. Raul Grijalva, the Democratic state representative who fought the measure when it was a bill, took point on Thursday, calling for an economic boycott of his own state. “It’s about economic consequences to the extremists that put this law together,” he told CNN on Saturday. “It’s about political voting and it’s about [developing] a legal strategy to challenge this.”

Brewer, Huppenthal and others who backed the law have said that racial profiling remains against the law in Arizona. “I will not tolerate racial discrimination or racial profiling in Arizona,” Brewer said Friday. “Because I feel so strongly on this subject, I worked for weeks with legislators to amend SB 1070, to strengthen its civil rights protections.”

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But despite her protestations, the law Brewer signed into law is in fact the height of the legitimization of racial profiling. It’s at the very heart of the legislation: the stigmatization of a group of human beings on the basis of a suspicion.

Brewer’s seemingly pragmatic reliance on training of police officers as what constitutes “reasonable suspicion” is necessarily dependent on community perception of the threat provoking that suspicion. When so many in that community are non-Latinos, when 58 percent of the state’s population is white and of the same social class as the government leaders who advanced this legislation, the potential for abuse of the law is there, despite its good intentions.



To one degree or another, effective in August in the state of Arizona, ethnic heritage constitutes probable cause.

Alfredo Gutierrez, the state’s former Senate majority leader, grasped the malign potential at work. “There’s 30 million of us in this country,” said Gutierrez, rebutting Huppenthal on “Hardball.” “Most of us are U.S. citizens; most of us are residents. This bill puts all of us in jeopardy, and that’s the issue. It’s a deceptive piece of legislation.”

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What’s just as dismaying is how the state’s leaders could be so blind, or indifferent, to the blowback this action can be expected to have on tourism. On MSNBC’s “Counrtdown” on Friday, Keith Olbermann mentioned the possible impact on the farm clubs and training camps of professional sports franchises, and the millions of dollars those enterprises add to the state’s tax base.

You can probably expect to see and hear of boycotts by the entertainment industry, and convention planners for a wide range of professional associations, in the days and weeks to come. Does Arizona’s leadership really think something like this would go down without an impact on the bottom line?

President Obama made his feelings clear on Friday in addressing the need for immigration reform. “Our failure to act responsibly at the federal level will only open the door to irresponsibility by others,” he said. “That includes the recent efforts in Arizona.”

Others should be expected to weigh in. Let’s say it now, early, before the lines of ethnicity are drawn any further between Latinos and everyone else this matters to: The NAACP, the National Action Network and the broad alliance of civil rights organizations historically focused on the lives and welfare of African Americans must step up to the plate on this issue — now, loudly, early and often and aggressively — for as long as it is an issue.

This is not a racial water’s-edge matter. In the year 2010, we’re not so very far from the turbulent, tragic period in the national history when African Americans were forced to contend with the same indictment by complexion — certainly throughout the Deep South, and probably in Arizona as well.

“This bill puts us all in jeopardy,” Alfredo Gutierrez said with an ominous touch of Orwell — but it was Orwellian in the good sense, in the way George Orwell’s “1984” warned us of the dangers of the ability of governments to twist perception and subvert morality with ends-justify-the-means arguments if left unchecked by their citizens. We don’t walk away from this one — the better to stop what's fast becoming the Arizona Territory from permanently descending into a not-so-grand canyon of an expedient abdication of values, turning into the test case for any other state governments considering a slide into the same abyss.

Image credits: Tom Kobayashi at Manzanar: © Ansel Adams (now public domain). Grijalva: © 2008 Tucson Citizen.

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