Fighting for Racial Justice and Immigrant Rights on the Frontlines

This week marks the five year anniversary of Arizona's notorious SB-1070 law, which codified a set of anti-immigrant regulations designed to promote self-deportation of local residents or "attrition through enforcement" in the explicit language of the bill.
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This week marks the five year anniversary of Arizona's notorious SB-1070 law, which codified a set of anti-immigrant regulations designed to promote self-deportation of local residents or "attrition through enforcement" in the explicit language of the bill. Among the most disturbing aspects of the law is the provision that mandates racial profiling by requiring law enforcement agents to determine the immigration status of community members who they "suspect may be undocumented."

Those requirements are still in effect today.

Much has and should be written about the corrosive impact of such punitive and bigoted laws on the fabric of our communities, our economy, and our democracy. But we must focus today on the unintended consequences of these viscous attacks: they catalyzed the creation of the progressive infrastructure to fight back.

As a long-time activist and advocate for worker rights and immigrant justice in California, I know this from direct experience. Back in 1994, the passage of Prop 187 by nearly 60% of the electorate was a crushing defeat for our movement. Much like SB1070, Prop 187 required agents to profile our communities and serve as immigration officers. In fact, it even required public schools to investigate immigration status, and to turn away children whose parents lacked proper paperwork. The overall intention was to deny all public benefits to undocumented immigrants - a population which even today constitutes 10 percent of the California workforce.

The outrage generated by these policies spurred unprecedented organizing. We built broad coalitions of faith, labor, immigrant, education, civil rights, worker centers, youth and business groups to push back on every front that we could. We waged a battle in the courts, in the state house, in the press and in the streets. We elected candidates who supported our positions, and tossed out those who did not.

By 1999, Prop 187 was effectively dead, but its long-term impact is better measured by where we are today. While many still face the threat of deportation, California now leads the nation in policies to protect the rights of immigrants broadly, and immigrant workers in particular. Our coalitions have pushed the enactment of laws that ensure all California immigrants have access to in-state tuition rates, driver's licenses, and state health benefits. We have passed strong laws to prevent retaliation against workers based on their immigration status and to stop abuse by foreign labor contractors. And we have begun to build a firewall between immigration enforcement and law enforcement by asserting that police forces in California will focus on ensuring the public's safety and no longer cooperate with federal requests to detain immigrants without warrants.

So even as we mark a deeply anti-immigrant chapter in Arizona's history, I cannot help but feel hopeful about what lies ahead there too. Looking at the breadth and the energy of the growing progressive movement for change that is out in the streets of Phoenix today, I believe it is only a matter of time before they are setting the agenda for the state and reshaping the politics around core ideals of inclusion, rights and justice. Already, we see the tide turning. The anti-immigrant laws that the legislature put forward the year after SB1070 were smacked down as the state experienced the negative impact of its over-reach. The notorious Sheriff Arpaio has been forced by the very people he targeted to end his community and workplace raids. As his trial unfolds this week, it looks like the people of Arizona may finally see him held accountable for his blatant disregard for the law. These victories are strong testimony of the courageous, creative and powerful movement being led by those directly impacted by the criminalization and racist deportation of immigrants in Arizona.

Nationally, as we confront increasingly hostile attacks on immigrant working families and the ever evolving criminalization of people of color being waged by those seeking to dismantle and delay the much-needed relief provided by President Obama's recent executive actions, we should take a page from the playbooks of organizers in California in the '90's and in Arizona today.

Now is the time to build our strength by broadening our coalitions, clarifying our terms, asserting our values, taking bold actions and holding our public officials at all levels accountable.

It is in the face of adversity that we learn who our friends really are and what we ourselves are made of. The resilience and interconnected vision of the grassroots movement assembled in Arizona today signals that a brighter future is coming, but we can't wait for it - we have to build it ourselves. We must bring everyone out of the shadows and honor every worker's work despite immigration status if we ever hope to raise wages for all workers. We have to stand up, together, and fight back.

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