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girlWhere Are You Going, Arizona?

Regressive new laws targeting immigrants and others spark nationwide protests

You would think that having a woman of Janet Napolitano’s stature appointed federal secretary of homeland security would be a victory for women’s equity, and it was. But it also had unintended consequences for the state of Arizona.
         When Napolitano left office as Arizona’s governor, the state lost a champion of women’s and human rights. Napolitano, who had served as one of the attorneys for Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court confirmation hearings, had vetoed a number of regressive bills—including several attempts to regulate ethnic-studies programs in Arizona high schools, proposals to regulate day laborers in public spaces and legislation to regulate immigration (a federal issue she believed local law enforcement had no business enforcing). In fact, while going up against a Republican state legislature for six years, Napolitano (a Democrat) set the record for most vetoes—180—issued by an Arizona governor.
         Replacing Napolitano, in accordance with state law, was the secretary of state, Jan Brewer. And in only six months she has invoked a climate of fear for many residents of the state.
         One of her first acts was to repeal a bill signed into law by Napolitano that granted dependent status to domestic partners and children of state employees. The repeal effectively stripped them of health benefits. Then, when signing the 2010 state budget, Brewer used the economic crisis as an excuse to target the state Children’s Health Insurance Program, known as KidsCare, which insures children whose family income exceeds the Medicare cutoff. Now there will be enrollment caps restricting how poor families can access the program.
         But what has really drawn huge attention and criticism is S.B. 1070, the bill signed into law by Brewer in April that requires officials and agencies to “reasonably attempt to determine the immigration status of a person involved in a lawful contact where reasonable suspicion exists regarding the immigration status of the person.” That means if you’re arrested in Arizona, your immigration status must be determined before you can be released—and it must be verified with the federal government. Also, if you’re put in jail for a suspected immigration violation or for not carrying ID proving your citizenship, you’ll be ordered to pay jail costs and an additional assessment of $500 for a first offense and twice that for subsequent offenses. Fortunately, the Obama administration challenged the law, arguing that it violates federal jurisdiction over immigration, and the most controversial portions of the law are on hold pending the legal decision.
         Brewer has also signed another bill, H.B. 2281, which prohibits schools from offering ethnic-studies courses. Arizona state Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, the bill’s primary booster, told Ms. that it’s simply designed to curtail how the Tucson school district’s Mexican-American studies program teaches Latino students that they are “oppressed” by white people.
Cultural pluralism—when smaller groups maintain their unique cultural identity within the larger society—is silenced by this law, which classifies those teaching ethnic studies as “racial separatists.” In actuality, ethnic studies (including Asian American, American Indian, Chicano/Latino, African American and gender and women’s studies) were formed out of the civil-rights movement, seeking to redress the exclusion of women and minorities from traditional fields of study. In ethnic-studies curricula, students are taught to analyze structures of inequality along lines of race, class, gender and sexuality—and then encouraged to imagine a future in which citizens are tolerant, mindful of history and socially responsible.
         Two other draconian bills are in the works—S.B. 1097 and H.B. 2382—which would require the Arizona Department of Education to collect data on students who are enrolled in a public school and cannot prove their lawful presence in the United States. Such a law would make every student a suspect.
         As an Arizona resident for the past seven years, I have to ask, as fall elections loom, “How much of this is about local politics and power?” Besides state and federal races, there will also be a proposed constitutional amendment on the November ballot, Proposition 107, that would disallow affirmative-action programs in the state—which could negatively impact minority students, employees and business contractors if passed. The playing of racial politics is nothing new in Arizona: The state was one of the last to recognize the Martin Luther King, Jr., holiday.
         Opponents of the new Arizona laws—including between 10,000 and 50,000 peaceful protesters from around the state and nation who marched 5 miles through Phoenix in 100-degree weather in late May—see them as part of a larger wave of punitive actions against immigrants and increasingly violent use of hate speech as public discourse.
         “This is something that needs to be nipped in the bud; we cannot have copycat laws in other states following the misinformed lead of Arizona legislators that make white supremacy fashionable,” said marcher Geoff Valdes, a resident of Austin, Texas. “These laws that legalize racial inequality allow people to say violent things that could not have been said in public 10 years ago. They are the dying gasp of white supremacy, trying to injure people as the new [ethnic] majority emerges in America.”
         The U.S. Department of Justice has formally challenged S.B. 1070 on the grounds that the Arizona law usurps federal authority over immigration. Meanwhile, protest actions have continued, such as the clever “Take Our Jobs” campaign by the United Farm Workers of America in conjunction with TV humorist Stephen Colbert. Its slogan—“If you want an immigrant farmworker’s job, come on over and get it”—challenges white Americans to see the absurdity of arguments about undocumented (read: Latino) workers taking “our” jobs.
         Even in the midst of all these intrusive and exclusionary new Arizona laws, there’s hope that collectively we can recognize their injustice and fight for more humane policies.

Read the original article in the summer issue of Ms. <>, available on newsstands, or direct to your doorstep if you join the Ms. community <>.

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