Arizona: A hotbed of pro-immigrant change?

Phoenix, United States - Maria Cruz Ramirez remembers how fearful she was when she first arrived in the United States with her three children 13 years ago.

She wouldnt get behind the wheel of a car, afraid police would pull her over and ask for papers. It was difficult getting used to not belonging, but she overstayed her visa to give her children a chance at a better life.

“It’s like being invisible, like being no one,” Ramirez, a Mexican immigrant, told Al Jazeera. “No one takes you into account if you don’t have documents to back you up.”

Ramirez shared her story with members of a human relations commission in Phoenix, which is considering the creation of a local ID that would be accepted by police as a form of documentation, and would help members of the immigrant community feel safe and more likely to trust law enforcement.

The identification proposal would have been a political hot potato at another time in this border state known as a “laboratory for anti-immigrant” policy. Instead, it is gaining momentum as several Arizona state laws targeting immigration are losing traction.

‘Attrition through enforcement’

In the past weeks, federal courts overturned two state laws that Arizona authorities used to target undocumented immigrants. One made it a state crime to knowingly transport unauthorised immigrants and another denied bail to all undocumented immigrants accused of certain crimes so they would have to stay in jail until their trial dates.  

These developments come amid expectations President Barack Obama will announce Thursday he will take executive action to grant deportation protection to some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants in the United States.

A third law that makes using a false identification for work a crime currently is being challenged in federal court. The manner in which these and other laws were passed and enforced by local authorities in Latino neighbourhoods created a toxic climate of fear for immigrants such as Ramirez, but appear to have backfired, according to Ray Ybarra, a civil rights and criminal defence attorney.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who rose to national fame for his iron-fisted approach in dealing with undocumented immigrants, had to limit his crackdown on immigration after a federal judge ruled his officers violated civil rights of Latinos during his immigration sweeps. Now his agency is under the close watch of a court imposed monitor who supervises the way it conducts enforcement to ensure his officers don’t discriminate. 

“We are seeing a reversal, the state of Arizona finally realises they’ve been spending too much money doing something that is outside their realm and against the constitution,” said Ybarra.

Over the last decade, the Republican-controlled state capital in Arizona - with voter support - created dozens of immigration laws fueled first by fear of possible terrorist attacks after September 11, and later by an economic downturn.

At their heart was the principle of ”attrition through enforcement”, the idea of creating laws to make Arizona so inhospitable for undocumented immigrants that they would leave the state.

Republican Senator Russell Pearce, the mastermind behind many of the laws, had support from out-of-state groups such as the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) and American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) – conservative organisations that pushed similar bills in other states.

Pearce’s role in the immigration crackdown partially led to his being voted out of office in a special recall election in 2011, which had the support of conservative Republicans concerned by the negative economic impact the laws had on their communities.

Anti-immigrant laws

While Arizona inspired copycat anti-immigrant policies in the past, political observers argue a shift in the state could also inspire a reversal elsewhere.

“Arizona represented the most bold and consistent attempt by any state to try to assert its authority in the enforcement of immigration laws,” Muzaffar Chishti, lawyer and policy analyst for the Migration Policy Institute, told Al Jazeera.

Arizona made headlines in 2010 when Republican Governor Jan Brewer enacted a bill sponsored by Pearce, SB 1070, one of the toughest anti-immigrant laws in the country.

That particular measure raised constitutional concerns over potential civil rights violations from human rights groups. It was also challenged in the nation’s highest court by the Obama administration for infringing on the federal government’s authority over immigration.

In 2012, the US Supreme Court struck down three provisions of SB 1070, including the one that made it a crime to be illegally present in the state, Chishti added.  

“It made a huge milestone and stopped many states from enacting laws like that and in a way unleashed another track: more and more pro-immigrant measures,” said Chishti.

Another factor that moved the momentum in the direction of pro-immigrant measures came in August of 2012 when the Obama administration granted deportation reprieve to some individuals who immigrated as children and remain undocumented, he noted. It was called deferred action from deportation, or DACA.

Since then, more than 40 states have supported the idea of granting driver licenses to recipients of DACA.

Arizona, however, is not one of them.

‘Show me your papers’

The recent overwhelming election of the state’s Republican Governor Doug Ducey, who ran on a border security platform and supports his predecessors ban on licenses for DACA beneficiaries, was a bucket of cold water for some.

While advocates argue the movement to have a city ID is a positive step forward for the state, they say the shift is barely noticeable in the day-to-day life of undocumented immigrants.

“I’ve said goodbye to too many of my friends,” said Ramirez about people who were either deported or left the state willingly.

Also, there is a mixed bag of state laws still in effect which combined with federal policies, make it risky for an undocumented immigrant to drive to work for fear of being pulled over by police.

The “show me your papers” portion of SB 1070 has survived legal challenges so far and makes it mandatory for police to question someone about their legal status if the police have “reasonable suspicion” that person is in the country illegally.

“The experiment [in Arizona] helped deport two million people,” said Carlos Garcia, director of PUENTE, a grassroots group that works to stop deportation of immigrant families.

Garcia said Arizona played a big role as a laboratory for laws such as SB 1070, which have inspired other states to follow suit, and together contributed to the record deportations of the Obama administration. The policies and programmes of the federal government to deport people got a boost from state laws, he said.

‘Secure communities’

Garcia takes issue with the federal programme known as Secure Communities, which allows local jailers and police officers to use a database that detects if someone doesn’t have legal documents and requires them to detain that person to be turned over to immigration custody. That includes individuals with no previous criminal record.

Laws passed in states such as Arizona have helped impact federal policies like Secure Communities, said Pratheepan Gulasekaram, a professor of constitutional and immigration law at Santa Clara University in California.

Gulasekaram said bills such as SB 1070 in Arizona have contributed to push the debate in Congress from the centre to the right into a tougher crackdown of immigrants.

But the state’s influence on the political debate can work both ways and pro-immigrant movements on the ground are starting to notice it, he said.

“There’s much greater focus in what can be accomplished at the state level in terms of integration [of immigrants],” Gulasekaram said.

Still, undocumented immigrants such as Ramirez are hopeful there could be some form of relief coming from the federal government if Obama takes executive action to suspend deportations for some without documents in the country.

The move would further pit Obama against members of the Republican-controlled Congress, who have been reluctant to pass comprehensive immigration reform and are at odds with Obama as to the way forward. It can also catapult immigration as a wedge issue for the 2016 US presidential election. This can both provide ammunition to conservative Republicans, or become a factor in mobilising the Latino vote for Democrats.

“I have faith that he [Obama] will do something and get many of us out of the shadows, and stop the fear of going on the street and running into police,” said Ramirez.                                          

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