The Blog

Dear Gov. Jan Brewer: Wax On, Wax Off, Or, Welcome to Arizona, Now Go Home

Let's be clear: The issues of a porous border, immigrants, and crime rates, have nothing to do with the latest Arizona debacle.
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Dear Gov. Jan Brewer:

Like you, I arrived in Arizona in 1970 as a carpetbagging immigrant.

An O'odham elder on the Gila River Indian Community took pity on me, though, and taught me a bit of Arizona history. One of our first outings was to the concrete remains of the Butte Japanese internment camp on his reservation, where thousands of Japanese and Japanese Americans were detained in the Sonoran Desert for three years. At one point in the mid-1940s, it was reportedly the fourth largest city in Arizona.

"Wax on, wax off," my O'odham friend mused, referring to famous line in the popular Karate Kid film.

Noriyuki "Pat" Morita, the American-born star and Oscar nominee, had been imprisoned as a child at this Arizona internment camp, as well.

For my O'odham friend, whose indigenous community has resided on both sides of the Arizona and Mexico border for centuries, the Japanese internment camp was just one episode in Arizona's (and our nation's) long and twisted history of anti-immigrant spasms.

"Beware of outsiders coming to Arizona," my friend warned, "they've always been the most anti-immigrant." My O'odham friend was fond of the popular slogan in those days: Welcome to Arizona, Now Go Home.

Let's be clear: The issues of a porous border, and immigrants and crime rates, have nothing to do with the latest Arizona debacle.

As Arizona's immigration soap opera plays out in the national headlines this week, this will only be another battle in the 200-year culture war over who will be the gatekeeper of the American Dream in Arizona -- and whether or not the implicit historicide of state's past will be in full view for those who care to take a deeper look.

Since its inception, Arizona has always sizzled as the nation's final frontier over who controls and defines the American Dream -- transient and fickle, not quite California, never Mexico, southern as much as southwestern, more invented than understood.

Dear Gov. Brewer, I thought of my O'odham friend when I read your outrageous comments that Arizona has been "under terrorist attack" by undocumented workers, and that the majority of illegal immigrants are "drug mules."

Even with increasing immigration, you know that crimes rates in Arizona are the lowest in four decades, or since we both arrived in Arizona.

While some news reports even question whether your cronies will financially gain from the anti-immigrant law, the truth is that you are simply carrying on the divisive history of the state that dates back to your fellow Phoenician politician Jack Swilling and his effort to drag Arizona into the Confederacy.

No one ever mentioned to Swilling, I bet, that the first non-native (illegal immigrant) to enter Arizona in the 1530s was an African Moor scout and slave -- most likely a Muslim -- who led the first Spanish expedition. I stumbled on a solitary landmark for Estevan, a park in Tucson, which featured the only swimming pool for African Americans for years.

The Confederacy and the federal government both recognized Arizona on February 14th, Valentine's Day, a date that you now celebrate for Arizona's statehood in 1912.

Yet, over a century ago, carpetbagging Arizona politicians bucked a US House Committee's recommendation to conjoin Arizona and New Mexico as a single state. Their reasoning: "Arizona is America, New Mexico is Mexican," and the reality that New Mexico's Mexican Republicans would outnumber Arizona's Anglo Democrats unleashed a racist campaign that shocked the nation. Arizona preferred to give up its state rights, rather than acquiesce to a "different race."

The more things change, the more things stay the same.

Five years after its statehood in 1912, Arizona politicians and mining interests made good on their promise of ethnic separation, as a harbinger of anti-immigrant policies ready to spread across the nation. A decade before nearly one million Mexican workers were deported from the US, having worked in the agricultural and booming 1920 industries, an Arizona mining company violently rounded up striking immigrant copper miners in Bisbee in 1917 and deported them by force.

The first of many "great deportations" had commenced. Governors like yourself found a convenient tool: Over the past century, Arizona's border crisis and "illegal immigrants" have been rediscovered every 20 years or so by carpetbagging politicians whenever the economy weakens, wars end, or election time heats up.

Real Arizonans know better.

"America is best seen through the eyes of immigrants," wrote nationally acclaimed Arizona novelist Alfredo Vea. In his debut novel of immigrants and migrant workers on the edge of Phoenix, La Maravilla, Vea's Yaqui Indian grandfather tells his grandson: "You don't become America, America becomes you."

Gov. Brewer, you and I became Arizona, even as recent carpetbaggers, just as illegal and legal immigrants have defined Arizona's economy, cultures and histories over the past two centuries.

For Arizonan Balbir Singh Sodhi, a turban-wrapped immigrant Sikh from India, that America and American dream died on September 15, 2001, when he was gunned at his gas station in Phoenix -- the first post-911 hate-crime murder. His gunman, Frank Silver Roque, had gone a killing spree to "shoot some towel-heads."

"To undo a mistake is always harder than not to create one originally, but we seldom have the foresight," Eleanor Rooseveltdeclared, when she visited the Japanese internment camp in Gila River, Arizona in 1943. She added: "We have no common race in this country, but we have an ideal to which all of us are loyal: we cannot progress if we look down upon any group of people amongst us because of race or religion."

Dear Gov. Brewer, when Arizona, under your leadership, enacts the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act this Thursday, July 29th, Arizona's borders and immigration machinations will not be resolved.

But you, dear governor, will remind the nation that the denial of the American Dream in Arizona remains a never-ending mistake.