Arizona, Immigration, and the Coming Shake-Up

Suddenly, I'm in Scottsdale. The film I co-directed with Annabel Park opens today in three theaters around the greater Phoenix area. A week ago, none of this was planned. But on that day, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into a law that sounded very familiar to me. (In fact, it was originally drafted by the same man, Michael Hethmon, a Washington DC attorney and anti-immigration lobbyist who is a central character in our film.) Moments later I was on the phone with Harkins Theatres, the largest independent theater chain in America, and the only one based in Arizona, and three days later I was on a plane.

If we are successful this weekend, I'm told that 9500 Liberty will be released in other cities in Arizona and across the country. (In this business, much depends on the opening weekend.)

I want to say on behalf of the people of Phoenix that you can't judge a state by its legislature. I have been welcomed by all, in particular members of the Phoenix business community deeply concerned about the potential economic impact of SB 1070. I imagine that's why 9500 Liberty enjoyed such great reception a few weeks ago at the Phoenix Film Festival. The concerns of the Phoenix business community -- mostly Republicans by the way -- are explored in this film about Prince William County, Virginia, my home, where a very similar mandate for immigration status checks was repealed after two months of implementation, due to its chilling economic impact, due to the expensive law suits it engendered, due to reemergence of the silent majority, due to the courage and integrity of the Police Chief, and, due to the behind-the-scenes leadership of the Prince William County business community.

I have to run and do a local TV news interview! So, if you 're interested in hearing more, I'll offer excerpts from an interview I did, which you can read in full at our website:

On the economic impact of mandatory immigration enforcement at the local level:

Prince William County is one of many counties that are satellites of Washington, DC, where there's so much going on with defense contractors, and the federal government, and the lobbying industry. So our regional economy remains strong no matter what the national economy is doing. What happened with the Immigration Resolution was our county suffered in its competition with neighboring counties for capital investment. It's impossible to know how many investors or home owners or business owners we lost to Fairfax, or Arlington, or Loudoun County because for a year or so, people really didn't have a good impression of us in terms of racial harmony, political stability, and fiscal solvency. The foreclosure rate in our county grew to seven times the average for the region, which hurt our property values tremendously. This forced us to raise the tax rate, and, at the same, time cut back on public safety, school budgets, and other services.

The difference hopefully is that at the county level, businesses and will simply move across the county line if they don't like what the local government is doing, but in a state the size of Arizona, I imagine most businesses are stuck here because you're locked in the middle of the state. That might work to your advantage. On the other hand, you don't have the thriving regional economy that we have in the DC area. You're struggling economically, you have a big deficit, and really you need your economy to expand instead of contracting if you're going to take care of that. Deficits and a contracting economy are a bad recipe.

What do you think will happen with enforcing SB 1070 in Arizona? Can it be overturned?

I don't know how much [the bill] will change things in Maricopa County. The corruption of law enforcement with political agendas started here a long time ago. But I'm concerned it will spread to other parts of the state, and this will have a negative effect on public safety, as law enforcement officials statewide are less able to build relationships of trust with communities of color.

As far as overturning it, as long as it remains a partisan thing, there's no hope. If you want to change the law, it's going to require fiscally responsible leaders from both parties who are concerned about the economy to stand up and challenge it. That's what happened in Prince William County. The business community, the religious community, Republicans, Democrats and independents came together, and almost as soon as that happened, the police mandate for immigration status checks was repealed.

How would you say a bill like Arizona's SB 1070 affects the jobs of law enforcement officers?

I have a great deal of respect for the law enforcement profession. It's one of the things I value most about the making of 9500 Liberty. Learning what they do and how they approach their work. The law enforcement community -- I mean the real professionals who are not motivated by politicians and are more interested in the science of police work -- they understand that they need us to trust them in order to keep our communities safe. When people don't trust law enforcement, it hurts everyone -- people don't report crimes, people don't give the police tips to help solve crimes, people go to gang leaders to solve disputes rather than to the authorities, thus empowering the gangs. Trust between law enforcement and communities of color is essential to keeping all of us safe. And it's not just racial profiling you have to worry about here. Even the perception of racial profiling really hurts a community, because perception is what affects trust the most, not necessarily reality.

What was it like sitting across from Michael Hethmon [of the Federation for American Immigration Reform] and hearing his views?

I've grown accustomed to listening to opinions that are considered outside the mainstream. He was very candid, and I appreciate that. He said he sees diversity not as something to celebrate, but something to tolerate. I don't agree but I understand where he's coming from. A lot of it is simply based on a natural preference most people have to find and congregate with people who have similar views, culture, or race. The problem we ran into in Prince William County was this guy from Washington DC came to town and said, "I can help you legislate that preference." That's what FAIR does. They wait for an undocumented immigrant to commit some high profile crime that can be exploited politically. Then they come to town with their PowerPoint presentation saying I can help, but first we'll need some more fear. So then everything gets blown out of proportion and every crime your can find that supports that fear is seized upon.

I think we get into trouble when we're selecting and imparting information based on politics, not facts. Like that rancher in Arizona - they still don't have a suspect, right? Maybe he was killed by an illegal immigrant, maybe not, but it seems like fingers were pointed right away. In Prince William County our elected leaders were justifying Mr. Hethmon's law by saying their constituents were seeing a lot of Hispanics in ahead of them in line emergency room. These kinds of anecdotal assumptions are not a good foundation for legislation.