Arizona is ‘Ground Zero’ of Immigration Battle
PHOENIX - When activists from around the country rally for immigrants' rights Saturday, it's no coincidence that they'll converge here.
Arizona is the flash point of the immigration debate, a place where high levels of illegal immigration have led to state and local restrictions, most recently a law that requires government workers to report illegal immigrants seeking public benefits.
Perhaps the most visible figure in Arizona's immigration politics is Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He has won praise and condemnation for having deputies swarm neighborhoods, stopping people in search of criminals and illegal immigrants.
Arpaio's department is under investigation by the Justice Department for allegations of racial profiling and discrimination based on national origin.
Arpaio says that won't stop him. "I'm not going to ignore the laws because of pressure from Washington or demonstrators or politicians," he says.
He has become a symbol of much that the immigrants' rights movement objects to; he says he's "the poster boy."
In rallying against Arpaio and other Arizona politicians and laws, protesters will call for a federal solution to the state's immigration problems.
The issue resonates here because more people cross illegally into the USA through Arizona than anywhere else - nearly half those caught in the past fiscal year, the Border Patrol says. That does not include those who got past the security gantlet.
"Arizona has been an incubator for hate legislation," says Danny Ortega, a Phoenix attorney who is chairman of the National Council of La Raza, a Hispanic civil rights organization.
"Because an idea is popular doesn't mean it doesn't violate civil rights, it doesn't mean it doesn't violate human rights and it doesn't mean it's constitutional," he says.
Chris Simcox, founder of the border-watch group the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps, counters that inadequate border enforcement and federal inaction have forced Arizonans to act.
"Arizona is ground zero not only for illegal immigration, but for exercising our rights - for fighting back," says Simcox, who is challenging Arizona Sen. John McCain in the Republican primary this year.
Arizona has adopted several measures to combat illegal immigration, including a 2007 law requiring employers to use a federal database to verify the legal status of employees. A business can lose its license for knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
Republican state Sen. Russell Pearce, the author of many of those policies, says lawmakers have a responsibility. "Either you enforce the law or you become a victim to your laws," he says.
Rony Martinez, 43, is traveling today from Hempstead, N.Y., to the Phoenix protest. The factory machine operator is with the Workplace Project, a group that advocates for better conditions for immigrant workers. He fears that what's happening in Arizona is spreading elsewhere.
"What Sheriff Arpaio is doing is seen by anti-immigrant groups in other parts of the country as a model for what they can do," he says. "We don't want more clones of him."