By Valeria Fernández, FI2W contributor
PHOENIX, Arizona — President Barack Obama arrives here today to speak at a commencement ceremony at Arizona State University in Tempe before an audience expected to number 71,000 people. Should the president have some time to look around during his visit he’ll find himself at ground zero of the immigration debate.
A border state, Arizona has become the center of a crackdown on illegal immigration spearheaded by state elected officials and local law enforcement agencies geared towards the deportation of undocumented immigrants.
“First and foremost (the president) will see the great division that the issue (of immigration) has caused in Arizona and the hate that has been created because of it,” said Daniel Ortega, a civil litigation attorney and Hispanic activist. “He’ll see a population that is frustrated on both sides by the lack of the federal government’s ability to move forward.”
The recent federal announcement of a shift in the way worksite raids are conducted –to focus on employers rather than employees- by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) might have little impact in Arizona. Here the raids have been “contracted out” to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio through a 287 (g) agreement with the federal government, said Alfredo Gutiérrez, former state democratic senator and publisher of the online immigration news site La Frontera Times.
Arpaio has used his deputies trained in immigration laws to conduct raids on mostly Hispanic neighborhoods. He also has vigorously enforced a set of state laws to fight illegal immigration by performing worksite raids and incarcerating immigrants who hire human smugglers to bring them over the border from Mexico.
“These first 100 days have been exactly like the last 100 days of George W. Bush, there was no discernable difference,” said Gutiérrez. But others say the Obama administration has brought a change in the tone of the immigration debate to the state. “We’ve seen the Justice Department announce an investigation on the 287 (g) agreement with Arpaio, over allegations of racial profiling,” said Mary Rose Wilcox, Maricopa Country District 5 supervisor. Wilcox sees this as a sign that alleged civil rights abuses won’t be tolerated under the new administration.
On the other hand, the appointment of Janet Napolitano –former governor of Arizona- as the new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security was viewed with skepticism among some pro-immigrant activists who are critical of her legacy in the state. “She’s never thought about the people but to reach her political aspirations to be where she’s at right now,” said Linda Herrera, organizer from Unidos en Arizona a grassroots organization of immigrant communities.
Herrera said Napolitano allowed some of the toughest anti-immigrant policies to take root in the state. This includes bringing 287 (g) programs to Arizona and signing into law an employer sanctions bill that penalizes companies that knowingly hire undocumented labor. “These types of bills against immigrants have impacted Arizona’s economy negatively,” she said. “These experiences in Arizona should serve Napolitano to see that the raids and deportations are not the solution.”
Yet, the Obama administration’s repeated promises to begin tackling immigration reform this year issue have brought hope to some. “The only thing that was encouraging to me is that at least he (Obama) made a commitment to start talking about immigration reform,” said Luis Ibarra, CEO of Friendly House a non-profit organization that serves the immigrant community. Ibarra said it’s frustrating to see how people have to wait sometimes six to 10 years to get their immigration application process completed by the government because the focus has been on border enforcement. “Meanwhile, they can’t work. They can’t drive in Arizona,” he said. “What is a family supposed to do?”
Obama’s visit will be short. “If he cares to look, he should walk in Maricopa County jails and see immigrants locked up there for jaywalking, for having (their car’s) tail lights out, or for having the license plate in the car not visible,” said Gutiérrez. “What he’ll find is that the law as applied in Arizona is exactly as it was applied in South Africa during apartheid. That at any given time when the police chose they could arrest a black person.”
Supervisor Wilcox added that the president would also see the dilemma of families who have been in the country for many years “contributing to the economy and live in fear because they don’t have papers.”
President Obama won’t have to go far to see some of the undocumented students graduating from ASU. They’ll be sitting across from him in the audience. Among them will be Dulce, 24, who asked that her last name be withheld due to her immigration status. She, like many of her classmates, expects to hear Obama mention the DREAM Act, which would allow for the legalization of undocumented students under certain conditions.
It will be a bittersweet graduation for the student who will receive a degree in electrical engineering without being able to join the Arizona workforce because she doesn’t have proper documentation. “If he looked, the president would see how many bright people are going just to waste. He’ll be disappointed to see lawyers, architects and engineers all going to waste. If they don’t get their citizenship, you’re throwing it all away.”
Valeria Fernández is a freelance journalist in Phoenix.