PHOENIX, Arizona – Pro-immigrant and civil rights groups from across the country will march in Phoenix this Saturday to denounce what they call the criminalization of undocumented immigrants by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.
People on both sides of the immigration debate consider Arizona a battleground because of state policies aimed at undocumented immigrants and the immigration sweeps conducted by Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose alleged abuse of power is currently being investigated by a federal grand jury.
With Congress expected to revive the immigration debate this year, the PUENTE Movement, which is organizing the march, hopes to draw more than 10,000 people, including activists and civil rights advocates from Washington D.C. to California.
“We have a responsibility to come in support as leadership across the country,” said Emma Lozano, executive director of Pueblo Sin Fronteras in Chicago. She added that migrants in Arizona are experiencing more attacks and are suffering more from anti-inmigrant policies than those in any other place in the nation.
The efforts in Arizona are equivalent to a new Latino civil rights movement, Lozano said.
“This is where the new-age lynching is taking place, where there’s more oppression. But it’s also where examples are being made of tremendous courage under difficult circumstances and resistance to oppressive laws,” she said.
A number of other mobilizations will be taking place during the week to renew a push for immigration reform, coinciding with the one-year anniversary of the inauguration of President Obama and the annual celebration of the legacy of civil rights icon Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.
“The reality is that we have to speak up when we see a human rights crisis like the one that is happening in Arizona,” said Sarahi Uribe, East Coast organizer for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network in Washington D.C. “There are many Sheriff Joe Arpaios out there, but by putting it into the spotlight we hope to raise awareness across the country.”
Salvador Reza, an organizer with PUENTE, said the march will also focus on accusations of abuse of power and political vendettas by the sheriff’s office and the Maricopa County Attorney for launching criminal investigations against critics of their immigration enforcement.
Among those critics is Mary Rose Wilcox, a member of the county’s board of supervisors, who is one of the targets of a conspiracy lawsuit and has been indicted for perjury and fraud as part of an investigation by the sheriff’s office.
“I think the reason the sheriff has been so punitive is because of my stance on immigration,” said Wilcox. She traveled to Washington D.C. last spring to lobby for an end to the 287(g) program that gave sheriff’s deputies the power to enforce federal immigration laws. Last Thursday, witnesses who were called to testify by the U.S. Department of Justice broke the news of the grand jury investigation into abuse of power by the sheriff’s office.
“It’s not possible that after a year in power this administration is still allowing for people’s human and constitutional rights to be violated under the excuse of national security,” he said.
This issue hits close to home for Alejandra Alvarez-Portugal, a 29-year-old immigrant, who will be marching with her four U.S. born children and her husband. Sheriff’s deputies detained her during a raid at her workplace last February, allegedly breaking her jaw in the process. The raid was part of efforts to enforce a state employer-sanctions law against companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers, but which critics say has been used by the sheriff to go after employees instead.
“We need to stop all this inequality and racism, not only for the adults but for our children who are the ones that end up suffering the most due to these raids,” she said.
Alvarez-Portugal was detained for three months in which she said she didn’t get proper medical care. She was released later by immigration authorities and currently has a work permit until her situation in the U.S. is resolved.
“We’re a voice they try to put out, but our Hispanic community can help make this country grow stronger,” she added.
The march will start at 10 a.m. in Falcon Park. Among those expected to attend are United Farm Worker’s Union co-founder Dolores Huerta, singer Linda Ronstadt and former Rage Against the Machine lead singer Zack De la Rocha.
Whether this type of demonstration is a useful tool for the pro-immigrant movement is a matter of debate, even among activists.
After the massive mobilizations of 2006, some groups moved away from marches because they believed they resulted in an anti-immigrant backlash. More recently groups have used online campaigns and text messages, as in the recent campaign to remove TV host Lou Dobbs from CNN.
“I think you need civic engagement as well as public expressions, it is equally important to engage yourself with private phone calls and letters to members of Congress, urging them to complete the unfinished work on immigration reform,” said Roberto Reveles, who led the Arizona Somos America coalition that mobilized over 250,000 people in 2006.
Emma Lozano, the Chicago organizer, said marches are a way to remind those in power that they will be held accountable when the next election comes, and that the pro-immigrant movement is growing stronger.
“I’m optimistic that we will have immigration reform this year, not because of what the administration will do, but because we’re going to be relentless in fighting for it,” she said.