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Legal Defender Isabel Garcia: Arizona Bill Forcing Officers to Determine Immigration Status Marks “All-Out Assault” on Latino Communities

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Arizona lawmakers have approved what’s being described as the harshest anti-immigrant measure in the country, forcing police officers to determine the immigration status of someone they suspect of being an undocumented immigrant. Meanwhile, over fifty people were arrested Thursday in a federal immigration sweep targeting van operators allegedly involved in smuggling in undocumented migrants from Mexico. We speak to Isabel Garcia, co-chair of the Tucson-based Coalition for Human Rights and legal defender of Pima County, Arizona. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZALEZ: In Arizona, state lawmakers have approved what’s being described as the harshest anti-immigrant measure in the country. On Tuesday, the Arizona House of Representatives voted to force police officers to determine the immigration status of someone they suspect of being an undocumented immigrant. The state Senate passed a similar measure earlier this year, and Republican Governor Jan Brewer is expected to sign it into law.

Introduced by State Senator Russell Pearce, the bill would give an unprecedented amount of immigration enforcement power to local police officers. Immigrant rights and civil liberties groups in the state have vowed to challenge the new bill, warning that it will only increase racial profiling.

AMY GOODMAN: Meanwhile, federal law enforcement agencies mounted a massive operation across Arizona Thursday targeting van operators allegedly involved in smuggling undocumented migrants from Mexico. Nearly fifty people were arrested, and more than 800 federal agents were involved in the bust, that the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency is touting as its largest-ever human smuggling case.

For more on what’s happening in Arizona, we’re joined here in New York by Isabel Garcia, the co-chair of the Coalition of Human Rights, a Tucson-based organization. She’s also the legal defender of Pima County, Arizona, and won the Lannan Foundation Cultural Freedom Award in 2008 and the 2006 National Human Rights Award from Mexico’s National Commission for Human Rights.

Welcome to Democracy Now!

ISABEL GARCIA: Thank you very much.

AMY GOODMAN: Let’s start with the legislation. Can you explain what legislators have just passed?

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes. This legislature is probably the most extreme legislature in this country. This particular bill is intended to clean up everything they’ve not been able to do in the past few years, obligating police officers to determine immigration status, really giving racial profiling, of course, its largest boost, converting it to its most important law enforcement technique.

This law would also create a new crime in the state. If you’re undocumented in the state, you would be guilty of a trespass. People would have a private right of action, if police and other agencies didn’t determine immigration status. Immigration status would have to be shared by all agencies. It criminalizes day workers, day labor workers, whether you’re trying to hire somebody or whether they’re trying to be hired.

And so, of course, it represents for us an all-out assault on our communities, guaranteeing that Arizona, in fact, is the engine for all of the anti-immigrant legislation and politicians in this country, with apparently eleven states poised to follow suit, if in fact Governor Brewer signs this bill.

JUAN GONZALEZ: When you say criminalizing even day laborers, I was struck by — one part of the law would prohibit people from blocking traffic when they seek or offer day labor on the streets. So this would be — allow a license, basically, for the police to really target day laborers across the state.

ISABEL GARCIA: Absolutely. For instance, in New York City here, you wave a cab, and when they pull over, of course, it blocks traffic for a few seconds. That’s exactly what would be criminalized in all of the state of Arizona, guaranteeing, of course, that day laborers could not be out looking for work. We’ve criminalized work in the state of Arizona.

AMY GOODMAN: Who is the engine for this?

ISABEL GARCIA: Well, Russell Pearce is the author, but ultimately —-

AMY GOODMAN: He is a state legislator.

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes, he’s a senator in the state legislature. But ultimately, it really is our federal policy. Beginning in 1994, Arizona was pretty much selected to be the place to funnel all immigrants, to create chaos, division, eventually leading to the election of anti-immigrant politicians, from, as you know, the Sheriff Arpaio there, Andrew Thomas, who just recently resigned to run for attorney general. And Arpaio states he’s going to run for governor, too. The superintendent of schools is an anti-immigrant. And, of course, Russell Pearce is joined by an entire gang of extremists in the legislature. So I really put the onus and blame on the federal government, in addition to the state government, for funneling and purposely creating Arizona as the laboratory for all of these anti-immigrant measures.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Now, those who defend these measures say that Arizona has become the main transit point along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico for undocumented migrants coming over.

ISABEL GARCIA: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: What is the situation in southern Arizona in terms of migrants? And is there any -—


JUAN GONZALEZ: — legitimacy to the concerns of folks that Arizona has become like the main doorway now to illegal immigration to the country?

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes, Arizona is, in fact, the doorway. Over 50 percent of all crossings occur through Arizona. Again, it was purposeful.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And why is that?

ISABEL GARCIA: It was purposeful. Beginning in 1994, we began with this prevention through deterrence, but really with military-type operations — Operation Gatekeeper in California; Operation Blockade, and then became Hold the Line, in the El Paso area; Rio Grande in the rest of Texas; and unfortunately, in Arizona, Operation Safeguard, that has resulted of course in the deaths of thousands of immigrants along the border.

So, yes, they’re correct that Arizona has become the gateway. New York Times reported that that area, in fact, was the bottleneck for all of America, North America. But that was purposeful, in fact intended. We believe so, because not only is a very conservative state, but the border is owned basically by the federal government, the state government and the Tohono O’odham Nation, which, for the most part, we ignore as much as we can.

And so, as a result, we have created Arizona to be the place where traffickers come, smugglers come. We have made smuggling an incredibly profitable business. Prior to 1994, people did not require the use of a smuggler. Now most people need a smuggler. But instead of catching smugglers — imagine, 800 agents to — ICE agents descending on Arizona with ski masks and armor like you can’t believe and vehicles and helicopters to arrest forty to fifty people? It’s really absurd justification, when we know that it’s an all-out assault on the public and the community, right at the heels of this legislation passing, and this operation coming forward, when really we’re not interested in the smugglers in Maricopa County. They have convicted hundreds and hundreds of people who have simply crossed and admitted that they were going to pay a smuggler. They’re the ones that are being prosecuted as being smugglers, as co-conspirators to their own smuggling.

And unfortunately, the courts have not been of much help. They have upheld almost every single piece of legislation that we believe is unconstitutional, illegal, a federal grab. And yet, they’ve been okayed by the courts.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Garcia, how does the new legislation compare to the 287(g) agreements?

ISABEL GARCIA: Well, 287(g), as you know, is a federal program that has two models. One is the field model that Joe Arpaio became the poster child for. And then the jail model. In spite of his massive violations and, you know, having —-

AMY GOODMAN: And for people, just very quickly, who don’t know who Sheriff Arpaio is?

ISABEL GARCIA: He’s the sheriff in Maricopa County who has made it his mission to be the most visible anti-immigrant in the country. He’s authored a book and made profits, and of course has become the poster child for all of them. He was the person who instituted 287(g) with a vengeance, even though he violated so many rights. He was only limited not to do the federal -— I mean, the field model, and that permits — that permitted those agents to, in fact, determine citizenship and residency. He states, “I don’t care if I’ve been stripped of 287(g) field model, I have Arizona laws” — that, by the way, were signed by our now-Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano — “I have those state laws to enforce, and so I don’t care if I have a 287(g) or not.” So it’s a 287(g) institutionalized on the state.

AMY GOODMAN: We have a clip of Glenn Beck interviewing Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

    SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO: Local law enforcement comes across some people that have a erratic or scared or whatever — you know.

    GLENN BECK: Demeanor?

    SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO: They’re worried. And if they have their speech, what they look like, if they just look like they came from another country, we can take care of that situation. But I don’t need that anyway, Glenn.

    GLENN BECK: Wait, wait, wait. Are you telling — hang on, hang on, hang on.

    SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO: I can still do the job.

    GLENN BECK: When was that — when was that law written? Because all I hear about is, that sounds like profiling. And the government is saying you can’t profile anybody.

    SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO: Well, that law, in 1996, part of the comprehensive law that was passed, it’s in there. It’s in there.

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Isabel Garcia?

ISABEL GARCIA: Yes, that’s Joe Arpaio. And as other clips that people have seen him on the television, he has stated upfront he does not care what the federal government tells him. He is going to enforce the laws in Arizona, even though it is driving the economy downward. The situation for our communities, of course, is really acute. People yesterday were scrambling, didn’t send people to school, didn’t go to work. And, of course, the south side, where my mother still lives, was under full-out assault.

JUAN GONZALEZ: That’s the south side of Tucson.

ISABEL GARCIA: Absolutely. Under the guise of going after a few shuttle companies, come on. Eight hundred ICE agents, together with US marshals, local police officers, stopped traffic in that part of town.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Well, there was an expectation by many supporters of Barack Obama that once he got into office, these massive type raids would stop and that there would be some effort at some kind of comprehensive immigration reform. There’s been some now increased talk about it in recent weeks. What is your — what is your assessment of the first year of Obama administration and your hopes for some kind of change in immigration policy in the future?

ISABEL GARCIA: Well, unfortunately, under the Obama administration, we’ve seen more deportations than under any other administration. Not that he’s more anti-immigrant, but Democrat administrations, as well as Republican administrations, have continued to build the enforcement buildup, and therefore it’s not a surprise to us that there’s more and more deportations.

Unfortunately, this administration is responsible for yesterday’s assault on our community. This administration continues to follow the flawed concept that migration is somehow a law enforcement or national security issue. And it is not. It is a economic, social, political phenomenon. And until we begin to address root cause and — for instance, what NAFTA has done to the agriculture in Mexico, displacing millions of workers, flooding of course to the United States. They knew they would flood in here. That’s why they began to build walls in 1994. They didn’t build the walls, as some people would believe, on September the 12th of 2001. We began building those walls in 1994. So we’re very disappointed with this administration.

AMY GOODMAN: Isabel Garcia, I wanted to ask you about the money that Arizona has to do this. I mean, you have, last month, Arizona becoming the first state to eliminate SCHIP, right, the Children’s Health Insurance Program —-

ISABEL GARCIA: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —- leaving tens of thousands of kids without coverage. The Arizona governor signed a new budget canceling the program, which also — which covered 47,000 low-income kids. The move coincided with cuts to Medicaid coverage for childless adults, dropping an additional 310,000 people from the rolls. So where is the money coming from?

ISABEL GARCIA: Absolutely. We are seeing a downward dive in our economy, precisely because we are so anti-immigrant, in addition to, of course, the economic woes of this country. Not only what you’ve stated, but we have eliminated the full-day kindergarten. We’re at the bottom of the list in terms of the states for funding for education. We have eliminated, wholesale, all funding for GED adult education. And the cuts go on and on. At the same time, they’re attempting to give tax cuts, of course, to corporations and businesses. And so, we are on a real downward spiral.

And of course they pluck out the immigrant, as they have historically, to blame all the societal ills, in spite of the fact that there’s recently been very credible studies to show that the undocumented labor force represent almost a billion dollars in terms of a net gain, when you subtract all of the costs that are associated with undocumented immigrants. You know very well we don’t have 12 million people here on welfare or — because we’re benevolent. We have 12 million undocumented people here because our economy depends on it, and the state economies depend on them.

JUAN GONZALEZ: And Janet Napolitano obviously, the head of Homeland Security, is your former governor.

ISABEL GARCIA: Absolutely.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Did you have any expectation that she would be — take on these kind of policies when she was governor?

ISABEL GARCIA: We knew she became the Department of Homeland Security Secretary precisely because of her war on immigrants. She, too, is quite responsible for the buildup in Arizona. She signed, as she stated, the toughest employer sanction laws, that now have been copied by Mississippi and other states. She signed a bill making workers criminals, agreeing to sign the bill that says if you use a fictitious Social Security number — of course, contributing to the Social Security suspense fund, over $200 billion worth — that you are guilty of being an aggravated identity thief. So she called the National Guard on the borders. So we did not expect anything good when Obama, President Obama, appointed Janet Napolitano to this position.

AMY GOODMAN: A few years ago, May Day was huge for immigrants’ rights marchers around the country. What are your plans for this May Day? And what are your demands right now?

ISABEL GARCIA: We are planning, of course, massive May Day mobilizations across the country. Ours in Tucson, of course, will be very clear. Our demands will be that we, number one, not demand just immigration reform. We want details. We are not in agreement with the four pillars, as spelled out by Senators Schumer and Graham, that continue that flawed analysis as immigrants committing a crime. We have to get off of that and recognize it. So we’re demanding that the enforcement stop, that we stop resourcing the billion-dollar structure that is going along the border, a militarization, of course, that is creeping up into the United States. I mean, Julie Myers, in 2006, at the Swift plants, announced what we’ve been saying all along: remember, this is signaling that enforcement will not remain at the border; it will go interior. And it has. So that’s our first demand.

Our second demand is that we immediately address the root cause, that if we’re interested about migration and the suffering of people coming into this country — the eighty-six people that we have already found in the state of Arizona at the border as of three or four weeks ago — we want a stop to that. And we need also a reform that reflects the reality. We should legalize the 12 million people here and begin to address those issues along the border that have caused so much suffering, environmental degradation and devastation by the Border Patrol and ICE and other agencies.

And so, our demands are huge. And we know that we’re going against even the prominent immigrant rights groups that are following the framework that is being spelled out by the Senators Schumer and Graham.

JUAN GONZALEZ: One final question, the immigrant rights movement that had such a huge outpouring in 2006, subsequently fractured between what I would call the more grassroots organizations, that supplied the people power, and the national groups, the trade unions, the Catholic Church and some of the major Washington immigration groups, that urged a more realistic compromise approach to legislation, what’s your — how is the movement faring these days in terms of the tension between these two wings of the movement?

ISABEL GARCIA: Well, unfortunately, the brokers, that you’ve stated very clearly here for us, have really attempted to co-opt the grassroots movements. As you saw, maybe 200,000, 500,000 people marched on Washington, DC, and of course the brokers and those that handled the march and handled the message, I hate to say, used the people that marched onto DC.

I think that there’s a great opportunity for the grassroots immigrant rights people to actually come forward now, because people are questioning: what do you mean I should just call and ask for comprehensive immigration reform? What does that mean? We will not accept any reform. And we can see that the millions and millions of dollars that have been spent by these organizations promoting a campaign-type, rather than a movement-building, you know, phenomenon — they should have spent some of that money educating the American public about the realities of immigration, the immigration situation, immigration laws and immigration history in this country. We have to begin to know the truth. And a lot of immigrant rights groups are, in fact, challenging those brokers and those messages as we speak today.

AMY GOODMAN: I think it is very important to point out that weekend, it was the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq weekend, the march on Washington, 200,000 to 500,000 immigrant rights protesters, the comparison of the size of that to the Tea Party rally that also took place, and then you compare the coverage —-

ISABEL GARCIA: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: —- of the couple thousand people at the Tea Party rally versus the 200,000 to 500,000 people who rallied for immigrants’ rights. I think most people in this country did not realize that was going on.

ISABEL GARCIA: Absolutely.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now! Isabel Garcia, thanks so much for being with us.


AMY GOODMAN: Co-chair of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, Coalition for Human Rights, which is based in Tucson, Arizona. We’re glad to have you here in New York for a few minutes.

ISABEL GARCIA: Thank you so much.

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