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Since its enactment in April, the Arizona law that gives local and state police the ability to arrest and detain people they suspect to be undocumented immigrants has spurred a whirlwind of discussion and activism concerning immigration policy and race relations. 

With the specter of racial profiling and civil rights violations looming, a coalition of civil rights groups and activists around the country has condemned the law (SB 1070). The National Association for Chicana and Chicano Studies (NACCS) and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities (HACU) are among groups that have called for an economic boycott of Arizona. 

Diverse interviewed three prominent Mexican-American academics about the law, its impact on Arizona colleges, and what they hope to see in real immigration reform moving forward.

Dr. Roberto Rodriguez is an assistant professor in the Department of Mexican American and Raza Studies at the University of Arizona. In his nationally syndicated “Column of the Americas,” he compared Arizona to the apartheid South Africa. Dr. Josephine Mendez-Negrete, an associate professor of bicultural-bilingual studies at the University of Texas at San Antonio, is the editor of the journal Chicana/Latina Studies. Dr. Devon Peña, the chair of NACCS and author of its statement against Senate Bill 1070, is a professor of anthropology and Chicano studies at the University of Washington.

DI: What do you think about the new immigration law passed in Arizona?

Rodriguez: I look back at the Japanese-Americans who were put into concentration camps during World War II. I think it is very similar. That is, we have an opportunity to take a moral stand to prevent something wrong from happening. Today, there’s a consensus among everybody in this country that what happened to the Japanese was wrong, but nobody stood up while it was happening. This is what’s happening here in Arizona. We can see a law that will legalize racial profiling.

Mendez-Negrete: It has taken us back to Jim Crow days. Except that this is targeting international citizens who have no choice but to migrate, in our global economy to make a living and to survive, to places such as ours that rely on the labor of people who can’t find work any place else. It’s not just the undocumented immigrants who are targeted. It’s also people who look like them and have indigenous connections to the Americas.

Peña: When we talk about this notion of the ecology of fear, what we are talking about is a political and civic climate that the politicians are deliberately stoking and aggravating that creates an environment of intolerance, fear, insecurity and hatred that is directed at anyone who appears foreign or that appears to be illegal—whatever that means.


DI: Why do you think this new law was enacted?

Rodriguez: You would have to know the politics of Arizona. This is the same state that questioned President Barack Obama’s citizenship, birthplace and his legitimacy. The politicians here are extreme right. We can sugarcoat it, call it something else, but there’s a vicious anti-Mexican sentiment here in Arizona.

Mendez-Negrete: There are historical ebbs and flows of both derision and need of Mexicans to come and work the most difficult, the most life-depleting employment. When we see them as the cause of difficulties, we want them out. And so we resort to nativist thinking and exclusionary laws that keep them out of the nation even though the nation needs them.

Peña: It is a sort of cultural war if you will. And this is why SB 1070 is part of a package of other bills that have been passed, including one that would abolish ethnic studies because allegedly it promotes resentment toward the racial groups and because it encourages Mexican-Americans to try to secede from the union. Another law would require school districts to terminate teachers who teach English with a foreign accent.

There is another theory. One that I find really intriguing is that Latinos have been voting overwhelmingly Democratic, threatening to turn Arizona into a blue state. Perhaps one way of addressing that is to try to limit the number of Latinos who make the transition into citizenship and voting rights.

DI: As a result of this law, are you reconsidering whether you should advise Mexican-American students to attend an Arizona college?

Rodriguez: No, but the reverse is happening. People are starting to send notices to the presidents of the universities that they will not send their children over here. Arizona has become the embarrassment of the world. The state just passed an anti-ethnic-studies bill. This is the state that refused to have a Martin Luther King holiday. Profiling is a fact of life for anyone that is brown.

Mendez–Negrete: If somebody got accepted into Arizona and they were going to be mentored by any of the allies or colleagues whom I know have done an amazing job with our students, I would not discourage them to go if they want to. But I would not encourage them against their own will. I would try to do education around what it means if they choose to go there and then I would make sure they are going to be mentored and supported by those who are there at point zero to work with our students. 


Peña: Rather than abandon Arizona, we need to go there in huge numbers. Probably one of the last remaining free spaces right now are the universities and colleges. To abandon them right now would be a strategic error. It would be great to flood the state of Arizona with all kinds of progressive people—White, African-American, Native American, Latina—let’s all go study there.

DI: The federal government has immigration reform on its agenda. What types of reforms would you like to see enacted?

Rodriguez: There is the North American Free Trade Agreement. There’s also the Central American Free Trade Agreement, the Free Trade of the Americas Agreement. My total belief on this topic is those agreements have to be renegotiated so that human beings are in the center of every one of those agreements. Unless that is done, (these agreements are) going to continue to exacerbate this migration problem. (Through) the NAFTA treaty, corporations ship genetically modified corn, genetically modified crops, subsidized by the U.S. government, into Mexico where (Mexican farmers) can no longer afford to compete (with U.S. corporations) because (their corn) is very cheap. So the corn goes south and the people go north by the millions. Along with reforming NAFTA, the second thing would be to adopt the DREAM Act, which would permit children who have grown up here that are undocumented to attend college.

Mendez-Negrete: It has to be a program that has amnesty included in it. If people are contributing to the greater good of this nation then we need to figure out a way to allow them to remain and make their contribution. There are children who are brought by their parents who have no say in the matter, who have no clue that they are here without documents. So they have an education, they are socialized in this nation, this is the only nation they have known—we are going to deport somebody that way when they are already part of this nation and they perceive themselves to be citizens? I think we need to support, for example, the DREAM Act. I am not sure if I support the idea of another brazero program because there’s talk about bringing in workers temporarily to come do the work and then sending them back. That seems to be the best way we like Mexicans—exportable and deportable.

Peña: We’ve got to find a way to provide labor for our agri-food system. I’m very much against transnational corporations controlling our food systems. We need to transform that system just as much as we need to transform the immigration system. Eighty percent of the farm workers in the United States are Mexican or Latino origin. An estimated 60 percent of those are undocumented, and they are the people feeding the nation under horrific working conditions, inhuman, exploitative. For example, it is common practice in agri-business to hire undocumented workers and then call ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) a day before pay day. So on pay day instead of getting paid, they get deported. This is an issue that’s been going on a long time. We need to prevent exploitation of the sort I just described. It’s time that Mexican labor stops subsidizing the American cuisine.

DI: If the pending immigration reform does not satisfy Mexican-Americans, then how will that affect the relationship between Mexican-Americans and the federal government?

Rodriguez: I think the focus is on those that do the active hate because it’s a huge movement. I don’t think many people consider the federal government, the Obama administration, as part of that. That is, they are not enemies. They are just not allies and they need to step forward. The Latino community in this country overwhelmingly supported Barack Obama for good reason. So most of us expect reciprocity. Instead, what we’ve seen on many issues is he has run toward the right to please the right. So we understand the difference between not acting good and the actual right wing itself because the right wing is vicious. They have militias down here. They are our enemies.  

Mendez-Negrete: I think that Mexican-Americans are going to look at the issues based on the greater good and whom it benefits the most. On the other hand, there are Mexican-Americans who don’t necessarily support the legalization of undocumented workers for different reasons. It’s like with everything else. If it threatens your viability and you are eternally dominated and colonized to the point that you have no linkages and connections to the ancestry group, you are not necessarily going to be supporting them just because they are Mexicans. Just like not every White person supports each other because they are White.

Peña: If immigration reform takes a rightward track and focuses only on border security and enforcement, then there is going to be very serious repercussions because it would withdraw our support for the Democratic Party and then Republicans would start regaining control. What we would like to see in general is a stepping back away from the militarization of the border.

The militarization of the border treats a social, political and economic problem as a crime problem. And immigration is not a crime problem unless you force people so far deep underground that they need to rely on criminal smuggling networks to get across. So our very own policies have created the criminal networks. That’s true in terms of the war on drugs. That’s true in terms of the war on immigration. And that’s true, I would argue, in terms of the war on terror. Abu Ghraib (the Iraq prison where American military allegedly tortured prisoners), as everyone knew, was the best recruitment poster for terror networks. We keep shooting ourselves in the foot by overreacting with testosterone-driven foreign policy and immigration policy.

If we can keep our eyes on the prize and form Latino-Black coalitions against this law and for a diverse, multiracial democracy, then I think we can prevent a rightward drift in the coming debate around federal immigration reform.

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