New law polarises race relations in Arizona

In this guest column feature, Irish teacher and resident of Phoenix Arizona Yvonne Watterson explains a new piece of legislation that is likely to have a polarising effect on race relations in the state and which has already led to trade boycotts of the state.  yvonne pic Last month I was sitting in my office, enjoying a visit with a former student and waiting, with a knot in my stomach, for the Arizona Governor’s announcement regarding SB1070.  Surely she would do the right thing and refuse to sign this insidious and un-American piece of legislation that makes being an illegal immigrant a crime and empowers state and city police officers to determine the immigration status of noncriminals if there is a ‘reasonable suspicion’ they are undocumented. Surely a 21st century governor in America would veto any legislation that had the potential to institutionalize racial profiling?   But in an instant, Governor Brewer showed the world that the lessons of history simply don’t apply to her. Swiftly and proudly, she signed this inhumane bill into law, and the world finally paid attention to an Arizona that, measure by measure, continues to make life unlivable for immigrants. What saddens me most, as an immigrant from Northern Ireland living in Arizona, is this prospect of carrying my green card, having my papers in order. After all, it’s not that long ago that I was routinely handing my driver’s license over to an RUC officer or a British soldier at random checkpoints. I clearly recall one snowy afternoon, at the top of the Ligoniel Road in Belfast. A student teacher, I was moving out of the halls of residence at Stranmillis College, so my little Honda Civic was weighed down with textbooks and essays, clothes and toiletries, boxes of pictures, a collection of concert posters wrapped in elastic bands, and my violin.  I must have looked less like a university student and more like an IRA terrorist because, even though I had my license and could answer the young soldiers’ questions about where I had been and where I was going, I still had to step aside while they went through the entire contents of my car, looking under the seats and in the boot, emptying out my make-up bag, rifling through the box of student essays. All in the name of security I know, but I always questioned the randomness of it.  Not out loud of course, but I wondered what it was about me that would cause a policeman or a soldier to have me step out of my vehicle and search its contents? Did I fit some profile? Did I look like a terrorist?  What was the ‘reasonable suspicion?”  Fair questions I think for the police officers whose charge it will be to enforce SB1070 in the sunny southwest.  Governor Brewer and her supporters have indicated that law enforcement officers will receive training so there is no racial profiling. I, for one, am interested in the curriculum that will guarantee those results for the one or two police officers who might just harbor anti-immigrant feelings, the one or two who can, under this new law, simply say they had ‘reasonable suspicion’ when they went out to investigate too much noise coming from a party that the residents inside were illegal immigrants. Arizona State Senator, Russell Pearce, who authored this piece of legislation, says it simply “takes the handcuffs off of law enforcement and lets them do their job.” But there’s nothing simple about it. Those police officers who are honorable and interested only in keeping the community safe now find themselves between a rock and a hard place, because SB1070 also includes the disturbing provision that citizens can sue to compel police agencies to comply with the law. Further, no city or agency can create a policy directing its workers to ignore the law.We all understand that illegal immigration is a problem of monumental proportion for these United States, but SB 1070 is not the answer. It is not the answer, for example, for those immigrant children who are in Arizona because their parents brought them here in search of that dream of America that also drew me to these shores.  Children who, hand on heart, pledge allegiance to the United States flag every day in elementary school. Children who have committed no crime but who are criminalized nonetheless because they don’t have papers. They don’t have papers because there is no legal pathway to citizenship for them. They would have to ‘go back’ to their country of origin, a country now foreign to them, for all intents and purposes, a country that will place them at the back of the line to apply to return to the United States (the only country they know), a line where the wait is about 10 years.Commenting on SB1070, Archbishop Desmond Tutu raised the specter of apartheid, where black Africans could be jailed for being in their own country without their papers, degraded and deemed less worthy because of the color of their skin, “Abominations such as Apartheid do not start with an entire population suddenly becoming inhumane. They start here… They start with stripping people of rights and dignity – such as the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Not because it is right, but because you can.”As I see it, SB1070 needs to sit on a shelf along with the pass laws of Apartheid, the Internment Act Law in Northern Ireland, and that book of laws in Nazi Germany prior to World War II that required Jews to carry papers and citizens to prove they weren’t Jewish. As of this writing, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) MALDEF, and the National Immigration Center are doing all in their power to legally challenge SB1070.   Important to note what MALDEF did in California some years ago, successfully challenging Proposition 187, a voter-approved initiative that required proof of legal status to access virtually all public services.  As fear and suspicion grew following the enactment of 187, schools and communities were torn apart and the state wasted tens of millions of dollars in an effort to defend an unconstitutional law which eventually was struck down.Without a doubt, SB1070 has reawakened in many of us the spirit that defines the transcendent struggle for human rights.  I recall the late 1980s when I first came to the United States and found myself in an Arizona that refused to create a legal holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. I remember Bono refusing to  play until that recalcitrant state legislature approved the holiday.  An economic boycott was key in forcing the legislature to honor Dr. King’s legacy. Over two decades later, we find ourselves considering similar strategies in Arizona, including a boycott.  Just this week, the local newspaper, The Arizona Republic reported the following groups who have announced travel boycotts:  • Service Employees International Union• United Food and Commercial Workers International Union• National Council of La Raza• Asian American Justice Center• Center for Community Change• League of United Latin American Citizens• National Puerto Rican Coalition• Leadership Conference on Civil and Human RightsAcross the United States, a handful of cities have already approved the boycott with Los Angeles becoming the largest city yet to boycott Arizona. The City Council voted 13-1 to bar Los Angeles from conducting business with Arizona unless its new immigration law is repealed. Read more at azcentral.comI was asked by Show Racism the Red Card what, if anything, people in Ireland can do. First, pay a visit to the Border Action Network website and sign up for updates about the fight against this new law both inside and outside of Arizona.And I think it’s worth repeating the oft-quoted words of Marin Niemoller, “ In Germany they came first for the Communists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Communist. Then they came for the Jews, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a Jew. Then they came for the trade unionists, and I didn’t speak up because I wasn’t a trade unionist. Then they came for the Catholics, and I didn’t speak up because I was a Protestant. Then they came for me, and by that time no one was left to speak up.”Yvonne Watterson grew up in Antrim and attended Stranmilllis College of the Queen’s University, Belfast.  For over 20 years, she has lived and worked in Phoenix, Arizona. The recipient of numerous awards for her work on immigration issues, she has been recognized by the City of Phoenix with the 2008 MLK Living the Dream award and most recently the YWCA Phoenix 2010 Tribute to Women Racial Justice Leader Award.  Yvonne is driven by a vision of access, equity, and excellence for all students.  Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Open Mind, and on PRI The World. She currently serves as principal of Alhambra College Prep High School in Phoenix Arizona. She also writes for as the  Phoenix Charter Schools Examiner You can contact her directly at 

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