LIVE FROM PHOENIX: Activists Hope Anti-Immigrant Law Will Force Obama and Congress to Act

by Jeff Adachi on April 26, 2010

I happened to be in Phoenix this weekend, and was able to spend part of Sunday afternoon at the Arizona State Capitol – where over three thousand people protested the harsh immigration bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer on Friday. Although I arrived too late to hear the speeches from the handful of politicos who attended the event, the highlight of the program (and only non-Latino to speak) was Mayor Phil Gordon, who came out against the law early and called it a “sad day for Arizona.”

The new law allows police to stop anyone who they might suspect is in the U.S. illegally. It requires immigrants to carry their immigration papers at all times, and directs police to jail those who don’t. It also requires local police to enforce federal immigration laws.

As Public Defender, I was especially curious as to how this standard could be fairly applied. Under our Constitution, a person cannot be detained by police unless there are reasonable and specific grounds for the officer to believe that the person committed a crime. What factors are the police supposed to rely upon to decide who might be “illegal”?

I spoke to several Latino citizens who talked about how they had been recently stopped by police simply because of their race. “This means that any Latino person is at risk of being stopped and jailed for not producing identification” one woman told me. Another woman, a mother from Tucson, expressed concern that she could be prosecuted under a provision that outlaws “transporting” an undocumented person, if she failed to ask her daughter’s friends for papers before picking them up for school.

Many of the protestors wore red, white and blue clothing and carried signs that said “I am American.” It reminded me of a photograph I had seen of a similar sign that was posted in the window of a San Francisco store owned by a Japanese Americans days before 120,000 Japanese Americans were ordered into internment camps.

One man, Abel Garcia, wore a t-shirt with the language from the Fourth Amendment written across his chest. He told me he was a student and that he had been there all week to show his support for immigrant families who could not attend the rally for fear of being arrested. Earlier in the day, several officers had taken one man away from a group of protestors and questioned him about his status. This report spread throughout the crowd, many of whom were undocumented and could potentially be prosecuted under the new law.

I spoke with Casey Wian, a reporter who had been covering the protest for CNN. Wian said that many of the people he talked to were hopeful that the passage of the Arizona law would finally spur the federal government into action. He noted that many of the speakers were critical of President Obama for not prioritizing federal immigration reform, and that they hoped this would change after the President spoken against the Arizona law.

Others who attended the rally saw it as an attempt by politicians to use a wedge issue to win votes in the upcoming election. Vince Rabago, a Democrat who was at the rally collecting signatures for his run for the state’s Attorney General, told me that many elected officials such as Sheriff Arpaio, who may run for Governor, are using the law to move their political agendas forward. Arpaio’s practice of racially profiling Latinos and conducting mass immigrant raids is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice. Rabago will be taking on Republican and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who is strongly in support of the law and has hitched his campaign to enforcing the law.

It was difficult to get a sense of what actions the loose coalition of protestors would plan for the future. Court appeals are being planned, and several elected officials, including Mayor Gordon, have vowed to have the law declared unconstitutional. But what was clear is that almost everyone I spoke to have their hopes pinned on President Obama’s promise to overhaul federal immigration law this year.

Jeff Adachi is San Francisco’s elected Public Defender.

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