Sharpton in Arizona Evokes Civil Rights Struggle in Fight for Immigration Reform

Activists plan “freedom rides” to monitor alleged civil rights abuses by Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office

PHOENIX, Arizona — In a visit that drew heavily on the tactics and symbolism of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, Rev. Al Sharpton came to Phoenix on Friday to call for unity between African-Americans and Hispanics in a national effort for immigration reform, and to confront Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a leading anti-immigrant crusader.

Watch highlights from Sharpton’s visit to Arizona.

In an emotional speech, Sharpton denounced the alleged persecution of Latino citizens and the raids in Hispanic neighborhoods organized by Sheriff Arpaio under the the 287 (g) federal program, which allows local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration laws.

“Let me make this clear, we’re not here about Sheriff Joe as much as we are here about Citizen Jose,” said Sharpton at Pilgrim Rest Baptist Church in downtown Phoenix, in front of a diverse audience that included Latinos, Anglos and African-Americans. Sharpton had called for Arpaio’s resignation last April.

Sharpton: "Don’t make me a suspect because of the color of my skin or because of my language” - Photo: Feet in 2 Worlds

Sharpton: "Don’t make me a suspect because of the color of my skin or because of my language.” (Photo: Feet in 2 Worlds)

“You cannot have law enforcement that is based on skin color rather than private deeds,” he added. “If we break the law, arrest me. But don’t make me a suspect because of the color of my skin or because of my language.”

Earlier that morning Sharpton, the president of the National Action Network, met with alleged victims of racial profiling by the sheriff’s office. Arpaio is currently the subject of a Department of Justice investigation over allegations of civil rights abuses.

Sharpton announced the start of “freedom rides” very much like the ones that took place in the South during the ’50s and ’60s to fight racial segregation. He said at a press conference he also hopes to gather evidence for the DOJ’s investigation.

His visit was heavy with symbolism. It coincided with Juneteenth, the anniversary of the end of slavery. And it came at the same time that President Barack Obama was meeting with Hispanic pastors at a prayer breakfast where he reiterated his commitment to enacting comprehensive immigration reform.

Sharpton brought a message of unity to two communities that have often been at odds.

“This whole fight, this whole tension between the African-American and Latino community, we must heal and must understand, that we’re not each other’s problem. We’re each other’s solution,” he said.

His visit also marked the kick-start of a black leadership national campaign for immigration reform spearheaded by ACORN.

“This is the new civil rights issue, is a human rights issue and so our message is that we have to come together,” said Bertha Lewis, the CEO of ACORN, who was crucial in bringing Sharpton to Phoenix.

Maricopa County –which includes Phoenix– was chosen as the focus of the campaign because of the type of abuses taking place, she said.

“We’re calling on Janet Napolitano (the Homeland Security secretary.) If she does not suspend 287 (g) across the country, at least suspend it in Maricopa County. Let’s sit down, let’s make sure that any new policy actually has civil rights and human rights protections,” Lewis added.

Local activists in Phoenix believe this alliance with civil rights leaders will inject new energy into Arizona’s pro-immigrant movement.

“We’re finally seeing the African-American community and the Latino community come together to say there’s abuse taking place,” said Lydia Guzmán, president of Respect/Respeto, a non-profit group that documents human and civil rights violations. “Racial profiling should not be taking place in the 21st century. Racial profiling should be something written about in the history books, not written in the newspapers,” she added.

Sharpton draw attention to Arizona through the live broadcast of his show “Keeping it Real,” from El Portal, a local Mexican restaurant owned by Maricopa Board of Supervisors member and Arpaio critic Mary Rose Wilcox.

During the show he presented the testimony of Julio Mora, a 19-year-old U.S. citizen who was detained during a work-site raid at a landscaping company last February.  Mora is part of a racial profiling lawsuit against the sheriff’s office.

Mora, who testified in April before a congressional committee investigating the use of 287 (g) programs across the country, said he and his father, a legal resident, where pulled over by sheriff’s deputies and held for at least three hours with no explanation.

Sharpton also had a closed meeting with Arpaio that attracted hundreds of protesters and supporters at the Wells Fargo building where the sheriff has offices.

Arpaio’s supporters called for the deportation of all undocumented immigrants, while his opponents held signs demanding the end of 287(g) programs. Some children wore T-shirts that read: “Cuidado, viene el sheriff” (“Look out, the sheriff is coming.”)

“This is the fifth time we vote this guy in, why don’t they take on the 59 percent of the voting public that voted for him and quit villainizing the man?, “ said Mike Duhaime, 47, who believes undocumented immigrants are taking  jobs from Americans.

Another Arpaio supporter expressed more extreme views. Harry Hughes, a self-described white nationalist, believes different races should live separately, and that undocumented immigrants are taking away medical benefits from Americans.

Later that day Sharpton and Arpaio had a live debate with Lou Dobbs on CNN.

Sharpton questioned the sheriff’s ability to defend his office against citizen’s concerns of racial profiling, since he doesn’t keep data on the ethnicity of the people arrested during traffic stops. (Other state agencies like the Arizona Department of Public Safety started to do that after a lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union.)

“If there’s no data there how can the sheriff defend himself?” Sharpton asked.

Arpaio who said he “agreed to disagree” with the reverend, suggested Sharpton was misinformed by local politicians and that “he’s just listening to a small group of people.”

The sheriff said he’s not concerned over the civil rights investigation, which he believes won’t have any negative consequences for his office.

· Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist in Arizona.

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.