New Arizona Immigration Law Awakens Youth Protest Movement

The Capitol 9 - Photo: Jose Munoz

Members of the Capitol 9. (Photo: Jose Munoz)

PHOENIX, Arizona—Getsemani Inzunza,14, didn’t know who was the originator of the text message, but when she and her classmates got the text, they decided to skip class on Friday and gather at the Arizona State Capitol.  There they met other young people who had spontaneously come together to protest SB 1070, a law that makes it a crime to be an undocumented immigrant in the state.

“They might take our future away,” said Getsemani, who has family members who are undocumented immigrants.

With the stroke of a pen that afternoon, Republican Gov. Jan Brewer made Getsemani’s worst nightmare come true. Arizona became the first state in the country to pass a far-reaching law aimed at controlling illegal immigration at the state and local level.

Student walk-outs and spontaneous protests at the State Capitol marked the week leading to the passage of SB 1070, showing the young face of what some called a new “civil rights movement” that is igniting in the state.

“They’ve got tired of hearing the promises of adults,” said Salvador Reza, an organizer from the PUENTE movement, which has organized several rallies against the new law.

On Monday, April 19th, a group of youth announced a spiritual fast against the proposed law.

On Tuesday, another group of nine students chained themselves to the doors of the State Capitol saying they wouldn’t leave until the governor vetoed SB 1070. The police had to cut their chains to arrest them on charges of disorderly conduct.

“Our message is a massive call out for direct action,” said Leilani Clark, 21, one of the arrested students.  “Obviously our voices weren’t being heard. We have to do something drastic for this drastic crisis going on in our homeland right now.”

The youth, now dubbed the “Capitol 9,” inspired others like Getsemani to walk out on Friday.

“We don’t want to be seen as heroes, we don’t want to be seen as martyrs, we want to be seen as putting the key in the ignition, and it’s time for everybody to turn in the engine right now,” she added.

Listen to Valeria Fernandez talk about youth organizing against SB 1070 on PRI’s The Takeaway.

“This law is blatantly racial profiling,” said Clark, who is half Native-American and half African-American.  Clark said she and the other “Capitol 9” students have mistakenly been labeled “illegal” in some comments written online.

“You are blatantly showing what this bill is all about because of our appearance you are assuming automatically that we don’t have papers, you are assuming that we are criminals,” she said.  “The color brown is an enemy, that’s what this bill is all about.”

Eduardo Lopez, 23, another one of the students who was arrested said their action was about trying to empower others to do the same.

“I hope we are in the beginning steps of a youth movement,” he said. Lopez gave credit to technology like text messaging and social media to help youth mobilize. “Still” – he added – “you need to have that human connection, sharing our ideas of what’s going on and what’s really wrong.”

Daniel Rodríguez, 24, a youth organizer, doesn’t want the energy to die down.

“It’s a national movement that is infused in energy by youth,” said Rodríguez, who is working with the Arizona Dream Act Coalition, which supports passage of a bill that would allow undocumented students to legalize.

The coalition is planning to go to high schools to give lessons in civic engagement and the power of vote, he said.

“If they ask themselves: We marched, now what do we do? This is the second part that we have been missing for years, to really have an established long-term movement, to have youth voters organize and be ready to take action,” he said.

Carlos Galindo, a community activist and talk show host at Radio KAZA said that a silver lining to SB 1070 was the awakening of a civil rights movement  sparked mostly by youth.

“These are the children of undocumented immigrants, this is for their survival, they don’t want to go to a country they’ve never been to and a language they don’t even speak,” he said.

Some political observers like Galindo believe the new law may accelerate the move toward immigration reform at the congressional level.

On Sunday, during a speech at the First Institutional Baptist Church Congressman Luis Gutiérrez (D-Il) said there are promising signs that Congress will make this a priority, at the same time that he blamed the Obama administration for SB 1070.

Gutiérrez spoke earlier in the day at a State Capitol rally surrounded by “dreamers” or students that are in support of the DREAM Act.

President Obama cited the Arizona’s bill as he called for immigration reform on Friday during a naturalization ceremony in the White House Rose Garden.

He said SB 1070 would, “undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”

A recent poll showed that about 70 per cent of Arizona voters supported SB 1070.

Arizona has about 460,000 undocumented immigrants living in the state according to the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

SB 1070 makes it a state crime to be an illegal immigrant by creating a state charge of “willful failure to complete or carry an alien registration document.”

The new law also allows anyone to file a lawsuit against a Police Department if they believe it is not enforcing the law correctly. In addition, the law makes it a crime for undocumented immigrants to solicit work.

The law is expected to take effect in August – 90 days after the legislature adjourns.

Several legal challenges to SB 1070 are expected, some of them would be aimed at stopping its implementation under the argument that it intrudes in an area of law that is exclusive to the federal government.

Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-Tucson) is calling for a national boycott of conventions in the state, part of a wider call for an economic boycott of Arizona. On Sunday, Congressman Ed Pastor (D-Phoenix) demanded that President Obama seek legal action to stop the law from taking effect.

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.