PHOENIX—It was more an atmosphere of fiesta rather than fear that rippled through a crowd of thousands of who rallied Saturday on the steps of the Arizona legislature to denounce the newly enacted “Papers, Please” law—SB1070.
The mood of those who marched five miles through 95-degree heat was, perhaps, summed up best by the slogan seen on numerous posters: “Undocumented Unafraid.”
Organizers of the protest had predicted a crowd as large as 50,000, and while the rally might have fallen short of that mark it was, without question, one of the largest protests since the controversial Arizona law was passed about a month ago.
Today’s march and rally marked the kick off of what some community organizers and activists are calling Arizona’s Freedom Summer. Plans to stage more rallies and escalating acts of civil disobedience will be further elaborated over the remainder of the Memorial Day weekend as organizers from across the Southwest and the rest of the country huddle here in Arizona.
“We are drawing the line quite literally in the sands of Arizona,” said an organizer of the million-member Service Employees International Union. “This law cannot stand and America cannot stand it.”
Banners from union locals and immigrant rights groups throughout Arizona and California were mixed in among the sea of American flags and portraits of the Virgen de Guadalupe that flapped through the throngs. “A bunch of us got into cars and vans and made the trip here,” said Marina Velasquez, from the Los Angeles suburb of El Monte. “We would have driven to Wyoming if we had to.”
The “Papers, Please” law broadly empowers local Arizona police to enforce federal immigration law and to make stops and ask for identification and some sort of proof of legal residence on the basis of reasonable suspicion. Critics of the law say it flings open the door to blatant racial profiling and is clearly unconstitutional.
A favorite target of the protesters was local Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who is not only a supporter of SB1070 but who has also been long using his deputies to conduct high-profile raids in predominantly Latino communities in the Phoenix Metro area. Federal investigators are currently probing Arpaio for possible abuse of authority. But he, nevertheless, remains a hero to the Arizona anti-immigrant forces.
Saturday’s rally and march comes one day after Obama Administration Department of Justice officials were in Phoenix meeting with the state attorney general and with representatives of Republican Governor Jan Brewer, who signed SB1070 into law.
The DOJ reps expressed serious concern about the constitutionality of the measure and threatened the possibility, but not the certainty, of federal legal intervention. There are currently five lawsuits pending against SB1070. Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard, a Democrat, reacted indignantly to the DOJ pressure, telling the press he would “vigorously defend” the law, even though he conceded it was “far from perfect.” Another recently enacted Arizona state law tightening sanctions on employers who hire the undocumented has just been referred to the US Supreme Court by the Federal Office of Solicitor General. A delegation of high-profile police chiefs, including those of Phoenix, Tucson and Los Angeles met with federal officials last week to warn that the new Arizona law could undermine their day-to-day work.
While the future of the street-based immigrant rights movement remains in question after today’s launch, so does the legislative future of any serious comprehensive immigration reform. Recent polls show a massive flight of Latino voters away from the GOP precisely because of its hardline stand on the issue. But many Democrats, while willing to benefit from the current sharpening polarization, seem skittish in proactively supporting deep-rooted reform of the sort killed by the Senate three years ago.
As a sop to those clamoring to “secure the border” before considering any other alternatives, President Obama last week dispatched 1,200 National Guard troops to the Arizona-Mexico border. In the past, much larger contingents of troop deployments have had a negligible effect in stemming the migrant flow.
But Obama acted under Democratic, not Republican pressure. It was Representative Gabrielle Griffords, a Tucson Democrat, who made the troop request. On the other hand, Representative Raúl Grijalva, who also represents a southern slice of Arizona, has defiantly endorsed the boycott of his own state.
That boycott might already be making itself felt as Arizona-based conventions get cancelled and out of state municipalities mull suspending contracts with Arizona. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, while in Los Angeles last week, asked Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to help call off the boycott recently voted by the LA City Council. Gordon, a Democrat, has also criticized SB1070 but is worried about the economic impact a boycott could have on Phoenix, which has been battered by the national economic and housing crisis.
“I don’t care how many Arizona businesses go bust. The more the better,” said construction worker Domingo Ramirez, who was waving an American flag at the head of the rally. “You can’t just sit back and let them take away our basic human rights. We’re here, man. And we’re not going anywhere.”
Three self-avowed “national socialists”—Nazis—showed up at as counter-demonstrators to the rally. They legally carried sidearms and a short-barrel shotgun as police and federal observers kept a close eye on them. They were mostly ignored by the crowd.
After today’s rally concludes, those supporting SB1070 are scheduled to hold their own political rally at sunset. Guest speaker is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.