PHOENIX, Arizona—Early Saturday morning at Steele Indian School Park, thousands of people started gathering for Arizona’s largest march to date against SB 1070. Families carried colorful umbrellas to shelter themselves from the merciless Phoenix sun. Signs denouncing the law that would make it a state crime for a person to be an undocumented immigrant floated over the crowd. The local CBS station estimated the crowd as being more than 35,000 strong, and organizers said it was close to 100,000.
One poster had the picture of a pregnant woman standing next to a young girl with short black hair, about 10-years-old. The sign read, “We Can’t Wait, We won’t be criminalized.”
Up on a stage, the little girl on the poster, Kathy Figueroa, introduced a band that performed before the march.
Steps away, behind a metal fence, her mother Sandra, who is 7 months pregnant, and her father Carlos stood proudly looking at their only daughter, a U.S. citizen. She is the reason that Sandra feels her heart is split in two—between Mexico and the U.S. A year ago Sandra and Carlos feared they might be forced to leave their home in Phoenix. Maricopa County Sheriff deputies detained both parents in a car wash raid for working with false documents.
The Figueroa family’s experience is a story that reflects the climate that led to the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona, and a window into the future of what enforcement cooperation between local police and the federal government could look like from an immigrant point of view.
“Our daughter keeps fighting and fighting, she hasn’t stopped fighting. Not just for her parents, but for the rest of the people that don’t have documents,” said Mr. Figueroa, who spent four months in detention—part of it in a Maricopa County jail.
Kathy was outspoken from the moment her parents were detained, addressing president Obama in a video made by activist Dennis Gilman that spiraled through the internet. She also led a march with hundreds of other children to the offices of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. She continues to this day to be a figure for other children with undocumented parents, and spoke recently on Telemundo in a special national broadcast about SB 1070.
“We know what they are doing is inhumane. They are going to be stopping people just because of the color of their skin. If you don’t speak English it doesn’t mean that you’re not here legally. But this law gives them the authority to do that,” said Mr. Figueroa. He and his wife were released from detention but are now fighting deportation proceedings. In the meantime, he obtained legal documents to work in the U.S. and was hired back at the car wash were he worked for almost 13 years.
Yet his future, like that of many others, depends on immigration reform.
“The fact that I have a permit [to work] doesn’t mean that I can remain here legally. I could be taken out of the country any time if a judge decides that,” he said.
SB 1070 hit Mrs. Figueroa close to home, and she immediately got involved in protesting the law.
“We’re marching for those people who were jailed unfairly, just like us, for working,” she said. “We want to help those who come after us.”
Saturday’s march, organized by the Puente movement, was one of the largest in Arizona’s history, second only to a massive protest in 2006 against a similar law pushed in Congress by Rep. James Sensenbrenner (R-WI). Back then people marched against legislation that would have made being undocumented in the U.S. a federal crime. This time they marched in opposition to criminalization of immigrants at the state level. There were additional smaller marches around the country on Saturday, a day advocates were calling “A National Day of Solidarity With Arizona.”
The 5-mile event in Phoenix drew people from different corners of the country: California, Texas, New Mexico and Louisiana, who convened on Sunday to strategize on how to stop the measure and keep other states from passing similar legislation.
“This is a threat to the U.S. Constitution,” said Lydia Guzman, president of the Somos America Coalition a group that advocates for immigrant rights.
There was also a small counter-protest. One of those who participated told NBC,
“If you keep allowing these tsunamis of non-white hostile crowds to come in, once they’re the majority they will not extend to us the same courtesies,” one supporter of the law said. “We will be voted into the cooking pot. So now is the time to wake up.”
Roberto Releves, the president of the Arizona Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) said he was confident the new law (which faces 5 lawsuits—including one by his organization) would be stopped in the courts. Last week reports surfaced that the Obama administration is drafting a legal challenge to SB 1070.
Several police chiefs, like Jack Harris in Phoenix, have voiced their opposition to SB 1070, which they feel will hamper them in arresting dangerous criminals and damage community policing efforts. Yet many immigrant families say the law is already being enforced by individual police on the street, who decide to call immigration authorities when someone is stopped for a minor offense.
“This is already happening. But we are not afraid anymore,” said Martha Rojas an immigrant from Michoacan, Mexico. “We need this to stop.”
Mrs. Figueroa doesn’t fear she will be detained again, but continues to worry for friends and family. When the new law goes into effect on July 29, it will also become a crime to harbor or transport someone who is in the state illegally, even if they are a relative.
This thought brings tears to her eyes.
“Before Arizona was like our home but we don’t feel like it anymore. We are being treated like animals, just because we crossed the border it doesn’t mean that we’re not human beings,” she said.
Kathy, who recently said she felt what happened to her parents forced her to be an adult, echoed the comments of many other protesters who took the opportunity to remind President Obama of his promise for immigration reform.
“I want President Obama to grab a pen and sign immigration reform,” she said.