Saturday, February 14, 2009

Federal Government will not be Maricopa County's Savior

Across the nation, grassroots movements comparable to that in Maricopa County who are focusing on immigrants’ rights are organizing around raids and detention by ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement), a branch of the Department of Homeland Security, or organizing against the construction of the border wall if geographically relevant, also a project of DHS. Immigration enforcement in the form of raids in particular, as well as the fear and discrimination caused by the laws, are the work of the federal government. Why then are people asking the federal government to solve the problem of our malevolent county sheriff Joe Arpaio?

Arpaio is extreme in his political/publicity stunts. In many ways he legitimizes the actions of the other law enforcement agencies and legislation. Why are the majority of people focusing solely on Arpaio, as though the actions of the Phoenix PD and other police departments do not matter? I have addressed this problem in Cop vs. Cop: Sheriff and Mesa Chief spar over sweeps and Phoenix Mayor Supports Change In Phx PD Immigration Policy. In addition, Arizona Senator Russell Pearce is concocting various methods to hit immigrants any way possible. He's trying to make it law that all undocumented immigrants can be arrested for trespassing anywhere in the state (automatic probable cause for stopping anyone who looks Mexican?), more penalties for not having a driver's license, make schools collect data on undocumented students and provide it to the government, and most significantly make it so all police have to enforce immigration law.

The latest news is that the House Judiciary Committee Presses Eric Holder, Janet Napolitano to Investigate Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Previous efforts involved an FBI investigation as well as various lawsuits.

Ever since Obama got elected, voices among local and non-local journalists, bloggers, organizers, and “leaders” interested in immigrants’ rights have been calling for the federal government (or particularly the new head of DHS and former Arizona governor Janet Napolitano, as well as the new head of the Department of Justice (DOJ) Eric Holder, as well as Obama himself, to do something about Arpaio.

A particular portion of a blog entry says a lot…
Frankly, however, the question before us is why this shoddy sheriff is getting away with “law enforcement” run amok. Where are the lawsuits against him? Where are the protests to shut him down? Where are the arrests for civil disobedience? Where are the incensed civic and religious leaders? Where are the civil and human rights advocates? Where is the national immigrant rights movement? Where are the politicians? Where is the federal government? Where?

What I see here is an expectation of one or more of these forces (which this author can’t see because he isn’t involved locally, but much of it does exist or has in some form) should be visible and effective. My sense of things is that the reason many of the more grassroots activities like the protests, civil disobedience, etc. aren’t happening or aren’t big/effective enough is because so many people are waiting for the federal government to swoop down and take care of it. Much of the activism is focused around getting people from the federal government to pay attention, although others also call on the federal government to stop the raids. The primary voice of immigrants’ rights advocacy in anglo media is Stephen Lemons who recently said, “The political reality of Cactus Country is this: Without intervention from the Obama administration, we are royally screwed.”

Napolitano was governor at least six years and didn’t even speak out against Arpaio’s practices. Yes, Eric Holder is the new head of the DOJ, so he can’t quite be held accountable for its previous practices, but likely will not do anything about the institutional racism upheld by his department through the vast prison industrial complex which is intimately tied with immigration enforcement and detention as well as the white supremacy that maintains both. Arpaio was once head of the Drug Enforcement Administration's (DEA) Arizona branch and has friends in the federal government. He is likely playing a part in Operation Endgame created by DHS. We mustn't think of him as unconnected from the federal government.

Yes, i believe that laws have a strong impact on how people think- particularly laws that discriminate tend to shape people's ideas about the people the laws discriminate against. Laws and the government legitimize actions by civilians against people considered inferior. As an example, the actions of sheriff arpaio, county attorney thomas, and az senator russell pearce legitimize the hateful actions of organized white supremacists. As such, there is much value in opposing laws and the actions of officials. However, there are limitations to these efforts- or specifically how the efforts are framed.

One problem with appealing to the government is that to do so would require not being a threat. But any real just solution to the “immigration problem”, inevitably involving the dismantling of NAFTA and other neoliberal projects, as well as a serious change in social/political structure, is and always will be a threat to the government.

Another problem is that the government has an interest in appearing to be able and willing to deliver justice. But overall it is not in its interest to truly liberate the people from injustice and in fact its existence is actually antithetical to such an action. It would like to have people ask instead of demand changes, however, and would like us to think of it as a benevolent force in such cases when it’s actually worth the time to make reforms that benefit the people. Therefore, if we ask and they give, they are the heroes. If we demand and they give, they are still the heroes although we still have some sense of having played a part.

Related, the government is not a just one. We cannot expect a government that has been built on racism and continues to practice it in various ways (much higher rates of incarceration of people of color than whites, lack of indigenous rights, wars, just to name some examples) to be a force against white supremacy. The operator of immigration detention centers (or the ones who outsource private detention facilities), the performer of raids, is not the one whose going to save us from the similar actions of the Sheriff. He is doing their work for them. He's just doing it in an extra "look how demeaning i can be to these people" way. If the federal government does anything about it, it will only be to legitimize and continue its own actions and those of other jurisdictions.

This brings up some questions which are not openly discussed. What does it take to really change things? If people power is necessary, how does that people power make a difference- voting, protest, social revolution, political revolution?

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