The new anti-immigrant law in Arizona (SB 1070) is more than a racist law. It is a device designed to divide and conquer. It’s not designed to just divide white-hued folks from brown hued ones; nor is it designed to merely divide citizens from non-citizens. It is also designed to divide Latinos. If one looks to previous such laws, say in Nazi Germany or apartheid South Africa, they will find stories of Jews who turned in their fellow Jews and South African blacks who turned in their fellow Africans. A common motivation for this behavior was the belief that by turning in a supposedly illegal person, the forces of the law would not turn their wrath on those who were doing the turning in.
This scenario rests on the very supposition that a person can or can not be illegal. Illegality is a human construct. It can be given and taken away at the whim of those in power. Laws such as Arizona’s SB 1070 utilize the suppositions inherent in this construct by labeling a certain type of person as illegal. It then takes this supposition and applies it to everyone, no matter whether they are legal or not in the eyes of the state. In Arizona, it works like this. There are many Latinos in the state of Arizona that do not have the necessary documents that would make it legal for them to live in Arizona. Most of these Latinos are brown-skinned. There are also many Latinos who live in Arizona that are either native-born US citizens or have documents that state they are in Arizona legally.
SB 1070 mandates that the police in Arizona check the documents of everyone whom they suspect of being in their state illegally. This means that either the police are to develop a special sense to determine who is living there illegally before they ask for identification or they are to ask for the required documents at their whim. Furthermore, if a citizen thinks someone is without documents stating their legal status and the police fail to investigate this citizen’s belief, those police will be in violation of the law. Secondary violations of any part of the law by any party are considered to be felonies and will result in prison time for the offending party.
The response to this law from politicians, the media and other self-appointed societal guardians has been mixed at best. Some have come out against it while others have come out strongly in favor. Most, however, seem to be waiting to see which way the political winds blow. We are told by many of the politicians that are against SB 1070 that this law is “un-American.” This is categorically untrue. The historical record of the United States is filled with laws whose only intention was to maintain a second class status for certain immigrants. From the laws enforcing the slave status of Africans to the Chinese Exclusion Acts; from laws institutionalizing racial segregation in the US South to the various employment schemes designed to control the flow of Latinos into the fields and other workplaces of corporate America, there is very little that is so profoundly “American” as legalized discrimination against immigrants, especially those labeled non-white.
Of course, most politicians speaking out against SB 1070 are unlikely to share this understanding of history. This doesn’t render their opposition irrelevant. Instead, it provides the more radical wing of the movement for a humane immigration policy with an opportunity to gain the ears of these politicians and their supporters. The opportunity to challenge the idea that some people can be illegal merely by their presence has never been greater. Indeed, Arizona’s attempt to codify that idea has the potential to expose anti-immigrant sentiment for the ultimately racist sentiment that it is.
Getting back to the point made earlier in this piece, this law is about creating division. National borders are reinforced to control wages of workers of all nationalities and to create and maintain divisions. Laws like SB 1070 are merely internal extensions of those borders. Just like imperial war, immigration control is a tool of the imperial elites in their pursuit of domination and profit. If the immigrant rights movement wants to be truly successful, it must keep this perception as its basis. While opposing laws like SB 1070 is crucial, the movement’s essential demand must be the eradication of borders–especially those borders that restrict humans from crossing them.
RON JACOBS is author of The Way the Wind Blew: a history of the Weather Underground, which is just republished by Verso. Jacobs’ essay on Big Bill Broonzy is featured in CounterPunch’s collection on music, art and sex, Serpents in the Garden. His first novel, Short Order Frame Up, is published by Mainstay Press. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org