By Joel Olson
In the midst of the Arizona state government passing the most outrageous anti-immigrant law since the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, several happenings pass unnoticed by the national media. At a packed Flagstaff City Council meeting discussing the law, waves of people declare publicly that they are undocumented, practically daring law enforcement officers to arrest them. At the same meeting, a member of a radical immigrant rights group receives thunderous applause for demanding the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws and declaring the right of all people to “live, love, and work wherever they please.” Even the most conservative city councilman admits he liked the notion. Down in Phoenix, high school students spontaneously organize a school walkout through mass texting, without direction from the established immigration reform organizations. This infuriates the organizations because it pre-empts “their” planned protests. And then these same students chuck water bottles at cops when they arrest one of their own.
Welcome to the new Arizona.
Arizona has been dragged through the mud by the media and national opinion over the passage of SB 1070, a heinous anti-immigration law that massively expands police power in the state, basically mandating racial profiling and making it a crime to associate with undocumented people. Much of this derision is deserved. The law was crafted by one of the most nativist politicians in the country, State Senator Russell Pearce of Mesa, and signed by Governor Jan Brewer, who is running as far to the right as she can in order to win the coming Republican primary. The anti-immigrant sentiment is so strong in this state that even our “maverick” U.S. Senator, John McCain, endorsed the bill. McCain, who supported immigration reform when he ran for president in 2008, is also up for reelection this November.
Anti-immigrant sentiment is so widespread it could change the political landscape here—for the worse. The rumor is that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio—who began the nativist sensation in Arizona in 2006 with his roadblocks and sweeps for “illegals”—is going to run for governor against Brewer. Andrew Thomas, the Maricopa County Attorney who is otherwise known as Arpaio’s mini-me, recently quit his job in order to run for state attorney general. Pearce salivates at the thought of replacing Arpaio as County Sheriff. So if you think things are bad now, wait until November, when we could have Arpaio, Thomas, Hayworth, and Pearce running the state. It’s enough to make David Duke exhale a low whistle.
But the courageous actions of undocumented workers and high school students suggest that nativism will not rule the Grand Canyon State without a fight. And those from below just might win.
You can see the kernel of the new Arizona in the shell of the old in the Repeal Coalition, a grassroots, all-volunteer organization with chapters in Flagstaff and Phoenix. As one of its main organizers, Taryn Jordan, explains, the group was formed in 2008 to fight anti-immigrant legislation. “We knew something like this [SB 1070] was coming, and we’ve known it for a long time,” says Jordan. “Our goal in Repeal was to provide a new face of resistance to it.”
And it is new. Most immigrant rights groups here call for “comprehensive immigration reform,” a law that would create a long, arduous path to citizenship for only some undocumented people, while leaving many in legal limbo. The Repeal Coalition, however, argues for the repeal of all anti-immigrant laws. “We demand the repeal of all laws—federal, state, and local—that degrade and discriminate against undocumented individuals and that deny U.S. citizens their lawful rights,” their literature states. “We demand that all human beings—with papers or without—be guaranteed access to work, housing, health care, education, legal protection, and other public benefits, as well as the right to organize.”
Flagstaff Repeal Coalition organizer Ashley Cooper says that in the current anti-immigrant climate, repeal is the only relevant demand. “You can’t reform these laws; you can only repeal them,” she says. “And this gets to the heart of the issue. In a global economy, where goods and services move effortlessly across borders, humans deserve the same freedom. The only way to achieve that is to repeal existing laws, not create complicated and difficult paths to citizenship that only some people will be able to access.”
The group is finding an increasingly receptive audience for its message, especially among undocumented people and college and high school students.
Repeal’s approach to political organizing is also different from most immigration reform organizations. “Our goal is not to work for the people but to work with them,” explains Phoenix organizer Ceci Saenz. “We believe that the people should be leading this struggle—and that they already are leading it.” Repeal’s task, she explains, is to facilitate this leadership by bringing people together, encouraging them to “develop their militancy,” and to provide a political framework for their struggle, which is expressed by their slogan, “No more hate, harass, and blame: Freedom for all people to live, love, and work where you please!”
Flagstaff Repeal helped mobilize the undocumented workers who courageously spoke out at the City Council meeting, for example, and they are currently organizing pickets at a local hotel that has harassed and abused (and now fired) undocumented workers there. The weekend before, they organized three protests in a row, which drew 500 people in a town of 60,000. “It wasn’t even our idea,” explains Flagstaff Repeal Coalition organizer Katie Fahrenbruch. “We held a meeting just before 1070 was passed. When one of our volunteers asked folks what they wanted to do about [the law], the entire audience said ‘Protest!’” (In Spanish, of course.) “They couldn’t collectively agree on a day, so they said let’s do it for three days. So, we helped organize it in less than twenty-four hours’ notice.”
In Phoenix, the Coalition is organizing undocumented people, trailer park by trailer park, apartment complex by apartment complex. While thousands massed at the state Capitol the day after Governor Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, the Repeal Coalition was with a group of several hundred, led by undocumented women, who led a protest through the Latino neighborhoods they are organizing. Later that evening they called an emergency meeting, and within thirty minutes there were forty undocumented people meeting inside a garage in a trailer park, discussing strategy.
Many people have been talking about leaving the state since 1070 was passed, but this group did not. They talked about fighting. Something is new here.
All of this is being done by a group of just a handful of volunteers without non-profit status and with virtually no budget. Three Phoenix organizers live in a “Repeal” house, paid for by a small grant they obtained. They agree to work at least thirty hours a week for Repeal in exchange for free rent and utilities. “We don’t live large and it’s been stressful since 1070 was passed, but it’s worth it,” says Chris Griffin. He lives in the house and spends his days visiting jails, courthouses, and the homes of undocumented workers struggling against these laws.
This is the new Arizona. As conservative whites try to drive every “illegal” out of the state, and as immigration reform groups wait for Obama and Pelosi and Reid to put immigration reform on the agenda, folks in the Repeal Coalition are holding mass meetings of undocumented workers and are going to the hangouts of high school students, encouraging them to take their struggle to the next level. And as snipers line the roof of the State Capitol, they are smiling every time a water bottle whizzes past a cop who is now empowered to check their papers.
Welcome to the new Arizona.
Joel Olson works with the Repeal Coalition in Flagstaff. He has lived in Arizona for twenty-five years.