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Climate of Fear on the Border

by RANDALL AMSTER

One of the unspoken tragedies and implicit intentions of Arizona’s anti-immigrant law, SB 1070, is the promotion of a climate of fear among certain segments of the population. This fear-mongering strategy has been cooked up by the bill’s leading proponents and most likely beneficiaries: the governor, rightwing state legislators, and an unscrupulous sheriff who shall remain nameless. As the political leadership of a failing state, they should be squarely on the hot seat, but instead they have managed to deflect scrutiny and pass the buck down the ladder to the bottom rung instead.

Here in Arizona, constant talk of murders, beheadings, escalating crime, and a rising tide of violence due to the presence of illegal immigrants has fanned the flames of terror and suspicion. It is empirically false but emotionally persuasive, in the true spirit of propaganda and demagoguery. Reporters’ questions about the propriety of elected officials denigrating their own state can be sidestepped — but now, the chickens may be coming home to roost, as indicated by a recent article in The Daily Beast:

“[T]he fierce debate over Arizona’s new migrant law … has stirred up the ugly underside of immigration — hate groups with nativist and white-supremacist links. Long story short, Arizona’s new immigration law gives ‘racism a place to hide,’ says Roxanne Doty, an Arizona State University professor who has long studied the nexus of white supremacy and immigration policy in Arizona…. ‘My view is you can’t separate white supremacists from what is going on with Arizona immigration,” Professor Doty says. “Even if politicians say they aren’t associated with white supremacists, the ideas behind SB 1070 are very attractive to white supremacists.…'”

There is mounting evidence to support these claims, including the presence of avowed neo-Nazis “wearing camouflage and toting high-powered firearms” while patrolling for — and detaining — illegal aliens on the Arizona-Mexico border. As reported by the Associated Press and reprinted in papers around the state:

“Jason ‘J.T.’ Ready is taking matters into his own hands, declaring war on ‘narco-terrorists’ and keeping an eye out for illegal immigrants…. Ready’s group is heavily armed and identifies with the National Socialist Movement, an organization that believes only non-Jewish, white heterosexuals should be American citizens and that everyone who isn’t white should leave the country ‘peacefully or by force.’ … He and his friends are outfitted with military fatigues, body armor and gas masks, and carry assault rifles. Ready takes offense at the term ‘neo-Nazi,’ but admits he identifies with the National Socialist Movement. ‘These are explicit Nazis,’ said Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Intelligence Project. ‘These are people who wear swastikas on their sleeves.’ Ready is a reflection of the anger over illegal immigration in Arizona….”

In a series of blogs and articles beginning in 2008, the Phoenix New Times has documented the rising presence of white supremacists and neo-Nazis in the state, and their repeated connections with elected officials including the senatorial sponsor of SB 1070. Some of the more disturbing reports include not only financial and political intertwining, but also a perverse rapport that is juxtaposed with visceral images of extremists shouting “sieg heil” at immigrant rights marchers and wiping imaginary “Mexcrement” (as they called it) on a Mexican flag.

Still, this could all be written off as childish posturing and low-level hijinks. Except for the fact that hate groups are extremely dangerous, not only for what they represent but for the acts committed in their name. Recently in Arizona there have been hate crimes with explicit “white power” fingerprints on them, the murder of a Hispanic man attributed by family members to the tensions created by SB 1070, and a robbery-murder enterprise conducted by apparent vigilantes ostensibly to fund their “border security” operations.

Furthermore, and perhaps most strikingly, there has been a wave of violence AGAINST undocumented people in the past two years that has gone largely unnoticed in the furor over SB 1070, as recently reported by the Nogales International:

“Another undocumented immigrant has been shot in Santa Cruz County. Jose Enedion Acosta-Amaniego, 28, from Culiacan, Sinaloa, was shot in the back by unidentified assailants as he was walking through a canyon area west of Rio Rico on July 2, officials said…. A similar attack occurred on June 11 when five illegal border-crossers were ambushed by two camouflage-clad gunmen near the dead end of Peck Canyon Drive in Rio Rico. One of the men, Manuel Esquer Gomez, 45, was shot in the arm as the group fled. Following that attack, Sheriff Antonio Estrada expressed concern that someone might be targeting undocumented immigrants in the county solely for the purpose of harming them, not to rob them…. According to records kept by the Nogales International, more than 50 incidents of borderland robberies and/or assaults have been reported to the Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office since April 10, 2008. During these incidents, nearly a dozen people have been shot and at least three have been killed. Their assailants have been described as men carrying semi-automatic weapons and wearing black and/or camouflage who lie in ambush on the U.S. side of the border. Another three cases of sexual assault against undocumented immigrants have been reported to local authorities, but officials and advocates say the incidence of the crime is common and most often goes unreported.”

Fostering an environment of racialized violence is the harsh reality of Arizona’s drive toward legislated intolerance. For those who might feel saturated by the incessant news about immigration, or who wonder “what’s the big deal?” about SB 1070 and the like, this is a reminder of the stakes involved. Will there be a climate of escalating fear, hatred, and violence that takes over, or will this be a tipping point toward social justice and human dignity instead? Politics and legalities aside, this is the basic question that the Arizona dilemma is posing to the nation — mirroring that which was posed by Martin Luther King, Jr. almost half a century ago: “Will we be extremists for hate or for love? Will we be extremists for the preservation of injustice or for the extension of justice?”

The choice lies squarely ahead. No matter what ensues in the near term, navigating this path will remain our task. In the end, as King observed, it shall remain the case that “right, temporarily defeated, is stronger than evil triumphant.”

Time will soon tell.

RANDALL AMSTER, J.D., Ph.D., teaches Peace Studies at Prescott College and serves as the Executive Director of the Peace & Justice Studies Association. His most recent book is the co-edited volume Building Cultures of Peace: Transdisciplinary Voices of Hope and Action (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2009).

 

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