PHOENIX, Arizona — Dozens of human rights activists are crisscrossing the country in a caravan from Phoenix to Washington D.C. to call nationwide attention to the criminalization of immigrants in the state.
Members of the local PUENTE movement are hoping to join thousands of people who will be part of a national protest on Sunday in Washington, calling on the Obama administration to pass immigration reform. But the caravan has its own particular mission: to bring testimonies to other parts of the country about the plight faced by undocumented immigrants in this border state.
“We are having a human and civil rights crisis here in Arizona,” said Orlando Arenas, one of the participants. “The cooperation between police and immigration authorities needs to stop.”
Activists aim to denounce the actions of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been at the forefront of the persecution against undocumented immigrants and is now the subject of a criminal investigation for abuse of power. They will also try to draw attention to the Arizona State Legislature and conservative politicians like State Sen. Russell Pearce (R.-Mesa).
Pearce is the author of a bill that would make it a crime to trespass into the state territory. A person arrested twice under the law would be charged with a felony.
The measure has faced the opposition of religious groups and even some law-enforcement organizations like the Arizona Association of Police Chiefs (AACOP).
Salvador Reza, a PUENTE movement organizer leading the caravan, said that it is likely Brewer will sign the bill into law. That is why his group will launch an effort across the country to boycott the state of Arizona.
“We’re going to tell people to not do any business here,” said Reza, who also hinted the bill might affect the undocumented population’s willingness to participate in the Census.
Some legislators believe the bill would be beneficial for the state, by allowing local police to take part in immigration enforcement. Republican Rep. Steve Montenegro said the legislation would be fair to immigrant families who are waiting to come to the United States legally.
“It won’t be enforced randomly,” he said. “There has to be suspicion and probable doubt.”
Opponents of the legislation including the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) say that it is unconstitutional and would be defeated in the courts. On Wednesday, hundreds of people led by the Border Action Network, Respect/Respeto and the ACLU, delivered over 6,000 postcards at the governor’s office in opposition to the bill.
The caravan –which departed on March 6– intended to stop at El Paso, Austin, Houston, New Orleans, Atlanta and finally Washington D.C.
Tupac Enrique, a member of PUENTE and Tonatierra, a local non-profit that advocates for the rights of indigenous people, said that the testimonies of immigrants in Arizona would be presented also to the United Nations Human Rights Council.
“We will exert international pressure because the human, civil and indigenous rights of our people are not being recognized,” he said.
Jovana Renteria joined the caravan on a very personal note. Her stepfather, who was in the U.S. on an expired work visa, was detained on his way back from work at a landscaping business by Maricopa County Sheriff deputies and deported.
He was about to marry her mother, who is a U.S. citizen, but now the family is divided and he has been barred from entering the country for 10 years.
Renteria said she is frustrated with the broken immigration policies in the country that didn’t allow him to renew his visa promptly and later resulted in this deportation.
“We need to come together and stand in one voice,” she said.