PHOENIX, Ariz.--As immigrant women and immigration advocates prepare for the "show me your papers" or "papers, please" provision of Arizona Senate Bill 1070 to take effect—as early as this week-- they shared their stories of a struggle that has evolved from fear to resistance in a panel here held last week by New America Media (NAM).
At a media roundtable titled "Women and Immigrant Rights in Arizona," some key players in the fight for human rights painted a portrait of their challenges and the road ahead.
They responded to the U.S. Supreme Court decision in June permitting the Arizona statute's "papers, please" section to go into effect before opponents can gather evidence that it is being selectively enforced based on racial profiling. Civil rights groups, claiming law enforcement officers have already shown a pattern of discrimination, filed for an injunction to halt the law's implementation.
But U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton rejected this request on Sept. 6, allowing the law to go into effect. In August 2010, Bolton stopped implementation of four parts of SB 1070, and the Supreme Court subsequently struck down all but the "papers, please" provision.
'Assault' on the Community
For some years, Arizona has been a battleground for one of the most divisive immigration debates in the country with Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigrant sweeps and a wave of anti-immigrant laws that reached their peak with SB 1070's passage in 2010.
The Supreme Court nullified other parts of SB 1070, but left standing the "papers, please" section, which requires police to ask for someone's documents—even if they stop the person for an unrelated cause, such as a traffic violation--if they suspect the person is in the U.S. illegally.
"In all my elected life, I have never seen such an assault on a community as we have seen in the last three years," said Mary Rose Wilcox, a member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors.
"I've seen a community become very scared," she continued, "a community become very defensive, but more importantly a community that asked why. And many of us have fought a very strong battle to stop it."
Immigrant women and their children have become the face of that struggle in Arizona when many of their working husbands were deported as a result of minor traffic stops or sweeps of their workplaces, said Wilcox. Also, Wilcox added, they took the lead as the voices for their families, marching and making their stories heard.
Wilcox has been an outspoken critic of Arpaio and other politicians, who use state laws meant to prosecute human smugglers to go after immigrants and employer sanctions to pursue workers.
"Because I had the nerve to speak out, I was prosecuted," Wilcox asserted. She was indicted as part of an investigation by the sheriff, charges that were later dropped. "I suffered a lot, but not half as much as a person with no resources, who has a family torn apart by deportation and who is trying to raise children," she said.
A Child's World Turned Upside Down
In Arizona the struggle has matured over the last decade, as a wave of anti-immigrant legislation has compelled immigrants to answer fear by becoming their own advocates.
At the NAM Phoenix briefing, Sandra and Katherine Figueroa, a mother and daughter, described their personal experience before SB 1070 was enacted. In 2009, Katherine was nine years old when sheriff deputies raided the carwash where her parents worked--and she found out while watching the news.
The raid turned Katherine's world upside down, and she was forced to try coping with her parent's absence and the possibility of their deportation.
Now age 12, Katherine recalled, "I would have bad dreams, I would not eat for all those months, because I was scared. It was a really sad life, spending three months without my parents."
Sandra, her mother, said that their experience is only one of the many stories of families who have been separated by immigration policies in Arizona--even before SB 1070.
"We want our voice to reach out for all of those afraid to speak," she said. "We no longer have respect for the police, we have fear. Something happens at our home, and we are afraid to call the police because we don't know if they'll arrest us or help us."
The threat of family separation is present for most immigrant women and families in Arizona, but the recent news that a federal judge turned down a motion to enjoin the "papers please" portion of SB 1070 is renewing worries.
Dulce Juarez, an immigrant-rights project coordinator for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), said the group has already documented the law's impact and will continue doing so as implementation moves ahead.
Through the use of a telephone hotline, in partnership with Respect/Respeto, ACLU is recommending women to have a plan of action. For example, if they are detained, the groups advise the women to assign power of attorney giving custody of their children to someone they trust.
"We can do the preparation. But people right now across the state, are preparing to leave or they are preparing for deportation. How sad is that," asked Juarez?
Victoria Lopez, an attorney for ACLU--one of the organizations that filed a suit against SB 1070 alleging the law amounts to racial profiling--said the civil rights groups are considering an appeal of the judge's decision.
"The only way to fight SB 1070 in the courts is getting the reports on the abuses," said ACLU's Juarez.
African Refugees Also Fearful
Latino immigrants are not the only ones affected by a fear of the police. Refugees from war-torn areas of Africa are impacted too, said Tia Oso, an organizer for Black Alliance for Just Immigration (BANJI).
"We see this distrust for law-enforcement, if there is maybe domestic violence or exploitation, these crimes are rarely reported," she said.
Oso said that it is important to go beyond the immigration issue as something that is impacting just one group of people but all "colors and creeds."
"Immigrant rights is not just a Latino issue, not just a black issue, it's not even just a women issue--it's a human rights issue," she said. "Immigrant rights is not just about those of us who come here across the border, but it's for those who come on a plane, on a boat, those of us whose ancestors come here hundreds of years ago, but are still struggling for equality and justice to this day".
Susan Frederick-Gray, lead minister of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix, stated at the Phoenix event that immigration is "clearly a moral issue, but gets painted as a political issue."
Frederick-Gray was among a group of over 50 people who blocked Arpaio's jail on July 29, 2010, in an act of civil disobedience to prevent his office from conducting an immigration sweep when part of SB 1070 was taking effect.
"As women we can understand that migration is about family and is about children and it is not against the law to try to provide for your family through honest work," said Frederick-Gray.
She also underscored the role played by immigrant workers and women in the U.S. economy and quoted Martin Luther King Jr.'s call to "value people over profits."
Frederick-Gray stressed, "The damage of racial and ethnic division is going to be with us a long time."
Several women in the audience, including those with and without papers, also shared their concerns and stories. Their comments carried one common factor--leave aside the fear and take action.
"Lots of people believe I have papers," said Emma Cervantes, a mother of six children. "I've learned that with fear I can make bad decisions," she told the audience. She said her goal is to engage those who can vote and try making them understand that if they empathize with her struggle they have the power to bring about change.
"I want those who can vote to know that we are coming here for the progress of this country," Cervantes said.