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Fighting for Migrant Justice in the Desert


“Arizona resembles the Deep South of the pre-civil rights era,” attorney Isabel Garcia asserts. “Here, Mexicanos cannot get fair trials.”

“I’m not just talking about immigrants,” she adds. “I’m talking about Mexicanos, regardless of their legal status.” The climate, she notes, which fosters vigilantism, is continually stoked by politicians and media types that seek to blame all of society’s ills upon hard-working migrants.

Garcia, Pima County’s Legal Defender, speaks with a passion that conjures up a bygone era, yet she insists that in Arizona, there is no bygone era. It is not uncommon for Mexicans to be shot and killed here by U.S. agents and not be held accountable. She brings up the case of Border Patrol agent, Nicholas Corbett who shot Francisco Ramirez at close range on Jan. 12, 2007 – purportedly for threatening the agent with a rock. Today Corbett walks free. Two juries could not agree to convict. And there are countless more cases, she notes, though truthfully, this form of “frontier justice” has always been true for the entire U.S./Mexico border region.

Garcia recently invited me to witness firsthand “Operation Streamline.” What I witnessed bore no similarity to anything that can be remotely called a judicial proceeding. It was more “show trials” in which 70 migrants were paraded before a judge and in less than one hour, virtually all were found guilty (3 cases were dismissed) of illegally entering the country. They were actually also charged with felonies, but were dismissed to ensure conviction of the lesser charge. In years past, taxpayer money was not wasted in such proceedings – proceedings that resemble a 21st century version of “Indian Removal.”

Every day, out of 1,000 migrants apprehended by immigration agents – 70 are randomly selected and processed like cattle through the federal court system. The objective is to criminalize these migrants and to have them spend time in the private Correction Corporation of America (CCA), thereby serving as a disincentive for other would-be migrants. The eventual goal is to eliminate the policy of “voluntary departure.”

It’s a sweet deal for the CCA, which receives $11 million per month. It’s actually a for-profit scam because it is a process that does nothing to address the actual problems associated with Mexico/U.S. migration.

The sham trials are but the tip of the proverbial iceberg. In the past few years, Arizona voters have passed several draconian propositions that primarily restrict the human and due process rights of migrants, particularly students. It’s a dehumanizing climate. But even these efforts pale in comparison with the human toll.

Since the mid-1990s, Derechos Humanos – a human rights organization (co-founded by Garcia) that monitors human rights abuses – has tallied more than 5,000 deaths along the U.S./Mexico border attributable to death from exhaustion, dehydration or drowning. The deaths were preventable as the various militarized border operations and walls have been designed by immigration authorities with the intent of funneling migrants into the inhospitable Arizona desert.

Some are hoping that with Arizona Gov. Janet Napolitano heading the Department of Homeland Security, things should be better along the border. Nationally, Napolitano has cultivated an image of moderation, yet, Garcia notes that such image is pure public relations. During her tenure, Napolitano did not veto the 2006 draconian “employers sanctions law” and was quick to call the National Guard to the border.

Yet, Napolitano’s departure may indeed see things turn for the worse because the state will now be firmly in control of the Republican party – a party that in Arizona is synonymous with anti-immigration – a party that also completely embraces the media antics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The sheriff – who has resorted to high-profile, racial profiling (anti-immigrant measures aimed at the Mexican-Latino community) recently tried to get Garcia fired for an incident involving a piñata resembling the sheriff. Rather than getting fired, Garcia recently received the Cultural Freedom Award, along with $150,000 – given to her by the Lannan Foundation.

For those who understand immigration to be an economic and human rights issue, a humane solution may be forthcoming from Obama’s Labor Department, slated to be headed by California Congresswoman Hilda Solis. It is not a guarantee, but it should be a radical departure from the current administration’s sham policies.

Perhaps justice may indeed be coming to the desert.

Epilogue: Several days after President Barack Obama was inaugurated, I returned to the courtroom… and expectedly, nothing has changed. The sham or show trials continue.

ROBERTO RODRIGUEZ can be reached at:


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