Arizona: a reflection and conversation on the migrant rights movement, 2015.

AuthorTellez, Michelle

Arizona is Ground Zero. Everything happens here. What other states can learn from Arizona is what we've learned--how to survive each and every day after being attacked through these racist laws. Just resisting and fighting back--Sandra (human rights activist, 2015)

SINCE THE PASSAGE OF THE NOTORIOUS SB 1070 IN 2010, ARIZONA HAS BEEN THE center of critical attention in the national media, public opinion, and popular culture. The city of Phoenix has become synonymous with anti-immigrant/ migrant sentiment, and bold, law and order--driven conservative politicians who vie for the spotlight with a perpetual stream of sound bites calling for stricter border enforcement and the removal of undocumented migrants who are always assumed to be Mexican. Captured in the public imagination are the bodies of brown people who are continuously defined as migrants, as not belonging, and as a people who need to be policed.

As a 10-year resident of this state, I am frustrated by the constant erasure of the people who live here and work everyday to challenge the dominant narrative presented by the state legislature and the media's carefully selected sound bites. In this essay, I share some of the stories of these Mexican/Chican@/Indigenous people whose counternarratives have been systematically ignored and whose long histories of struggle for labor rights, rights to a just education, and rights to living without fear are tied to a memory of a time when the US/Mexico border as we know it today did not exist. I choose to cluster these identities because in the subsequent narratives all individuals self-identify differently; their identity relates to their experiences, their ways of being in the world, and their ways of understanding the world. Some identify strongly with the nation-state of Mexico, others with a politicized Chicana/o experience that is both bilingual and bicultural, and others as Indigenous or native to both the land and continent. This article is not about unpacking particular identitarian positions as much as it is about beginning the conversation from their self-defined identities. Moreover, the international demarcation along the United States and Mexico has differentially affected workers, families, and communities in its 167-year history, both limiting and forcing migratory movements that have continuously forged new social, political, and economic relationships.

However, this essay takes as a point of departure more recent, emerging movements of Mexican/Chican@/Indigenous resistance and struggles for social justice that have developed in response to the changing climate of fear in the last decade, movements that should be on the frontline of our contemporary understanding of Chican@/Mexican@ social movements. The widespread anti-migrant, mostly anti-Mexican, sentiment in Arizona can be attributed to six-times-elected County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been instrumental in creating an environment of hostility, fear, and hatred. He has gone so far in his fear tactics to say, in his 2008 autobiography, that there is "a growing movement among not only Mexican nationals but also some Mexican-Americans that the United States stole the territory that is now California, Arizona and Texas, and that massive immigration over the border will speed the reconquista [reconquering] of these lands, returning them to Mexico" (as cited in Anti-Defamation League 2012). Arpaio also asserted, "No other group except the Mexicans, and other Hispanics as well, has broken the immigration laws in such astonishing numbers" (ibid.). This kind of misinformation and oversimplification of migratory movements across Arizona's southern border, with no mention of economic policies such as NAFTA or other economic push factors, has dire consequences for Mexican-origin communities. Local politicians have strategically built a climate of fear and dehumanization of Mexican/Chican@/ Indigenous migrants and, in many ways, have been quite successful at codifying it into law and popular consciousness. Yet the push-back from the very people most affected began in March 2006, when over 20,000 people descended on Arizona State Senator Jon Kyi's office in Phoenix in support of immigration reform and against the now infamous Sensenbrenner Bill (HR-4437) proposed to Congress in that year.

Grounded in the contemporary political and social environment, this essay weaves the stories and perspectives of five Chicana/Mexican women activists in the metro Phoenix area. I focus on these women because they play significant roles in shaping this growing movement in Arizona. In the same spirit as the Latina Feminist Group (2001,19), I utilize the testimonios, or testimonies, of five women activists as a tool to "theorize oppression, resistance and subjectivity." Marginalized people are often silenced, pushed out, and unrecognized, so we as scholars must ensure these experiences and voices, which hold the power for transformation, are at the forefront of mutual knowledge creation and political collaboration. Their narratives, based on interviews conducted in Phoenix in 2015, offer a glimpse into life in Arizona pre- and post-SB 1070 and capture the urgency of their work and message. As Dulce told me, "Arizona matters because we are a resilient community. We are fighters. We are freedom fighters. We know what it feels like to be caged." And Sandra said "in Arizona we are ground zero for the immigrant rights movement and [human right] violations, but also the place of experiment for resistance and for organizing." Significantly, what might start out as a movement in reaction to these policies turns into a community organizing effort where communities become leaders and begin to transform fear into action for a different kind of life. In this essay I will map these pathways to activism, organizational histories, and the transformation of reactive activism into community organizing and building.

Arizona: A Laboratory of Exclusion

The politics of exclusion in Arizona are rooted in a long history of border disputes, land takeovers (primarily of the Tohono O'Odham Nation, whose nation was also sliced in half by the creation of the US/Mexico border) by Anglo settlers, and restrictive labor practices tied to Mexican workers laboring in agriculture and mining. Migrants, primarily Mexicans, have been a significant part of Arizona's cultural mix since the early eighteenth century, yet Anglo Arizonans have maintained cultural and demographic dominance since statehood in 1912 (Santa Ana and Gonzalez de Bustamante 2012, 20). Reinvigorated by the conservative ideas about race relations of post-1980s migrants to the Midwest, who are overwhelmingly white and retired, and reinforced by recent legislation and Arizona's political leadership, the state's long history of conservative and libertarian ideas has not surprisingly led to an acrimonious climate and culture of fear, especially among undocumented and mixed-status families (Sanidad 2011).

To illustrate how this culture developed, I trace the pertinent legislative action that has methodically eroded the fundamental rights of migrants living and working in Arizona. In November of 2004, Arizona passed Proposition 200, an initiative that required "individuals to produce citizenship documents when voting or receiving government social services" (The Leadership Conference 2004). Proposition 200 not only required proof of citizenship but also charged government employees with misdemeanors if they provided services to anyone believed to be undocumented (ibid.). This was the first in a series of exclusionary laws enforced at the local level but with significant national implications.

Two years later, in 2006, anti-migrant legislation, primarily introduced by ultra-conservative (then) Senator Russell Pearce, had more direct consequences for migrant communities living in Arizona. (1) First, Proposition 103 (the "English-only law") was passed, making English the state's official language and requiring that all "official state business"--which includes all activities in the court and government agencies that protect workers' rights--be conducted in English (Arizona Secretary of State's Office 2006). In November of that same year, Arizona voters approved Proposition 300, mandating that immigrant university students who are not US citizens or permanent residents are ineligible for in-state tuition or financial aid that is funded or subsidized by state monies. Also implemented in 2006, but recently overturned by a federal appeals court, Proposition 100 made bail unavailable to those charged with "serious felony offenses" if they were in this country "illegally" and if "the proof is evident or the presumption great" that the person is guilty of the offense charged (Fischer 2014; see also Kiefer 2014). This proposition effectively increased the presence of undocumented migrants both in local detention centers and in Arpaio's tent city, an extension of the Maricopa County Jail for convicted and sentenced prisoners that has received much criticism for abusing inmates, singling this group out for categorization and disparate treatment, and reinforcing the image of "illegal" migrants further criminalized by incarceration. The buildup of this incarceration apparatus gave more visibility to migrants as well as to the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) and MCSO workers.

The confrontations between conservative nativists and the emerging intergenerational migrants' rights movement that began to gain national media coverage in 2006 were highlighted at Pruitt's furniture store in east central Phoenix that fall. Pruitt's owners hired six people to arrest day laborers waiting for employment on a nearby street corner citing their presence as loitering. Arpaio defended the store, as did local anti-immigrant groups. For three months, day laborers, churches, students, and immigrant/migrant rights groups organized demonstrations twice a week. A...

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