Governor Brewer sounded resolute: "Decades of inaction and misguided policy have created a dangerous and unacceptable situation," she told a room packed with reporters. Behind her stood two impermeable rows of stoic-looking ranchers shifting uncomfortably as if waiting to be executed by a firing squad. It was April 23, 2010, and Arizona's top dog was announcing that the hunt for unauthorized immigrants could now begin. After prayers and patient listening to both sides, as she put it, Governor Brewer's unwavering hand signed the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB1070). No one applauded her signing of the controversial law. Brewer had to go to the men standing behind her to shake their hand because they would not come forward to do it themselves.
The night before the bill's signing, hundreds of pro-immigrant advocates conducted an all-night vigil, praying, chanting, cursing, and pledging never to forget. My mother and I participated in the rallies until the wee hours of the night, our candle lights blowing firmly in the wind. But as the scorching Phoenix sun rose in the east the following morning, it facetiously foreshadowed the burning of the spires.
By mid-day, thousands of young people had walked out of their school sanctums towards Arizona's State Capitol Building, underscoring the need to denounce the polarizing effects of a political construct that was about to engulf the lives of every Arizonan. These young U.S. citizens were especially incensed at the real possibility that the land they have always called home could now become a battlefield where loved ones, their parents in particular, could be criminalized, displaced, uprooted with the stroke of a demagogue's pen.
Not much and yet all has changed since the first major anti-immigrant legislation in a quarter of a century became law one year ago. The federal government sued Arizona soon after SB1070 became immigration's bastard child in a rare show of might that could have been interpreted simply as PR crisis management. Within months, though, Federal District Court Judge Susan Bolton hacked the factious law into pieces, freezing much of it, and this April, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reaffirmed Bolton's injunction. The nation only temporarily sighed in relief.
By all accounts, the Grand Canyon State and the rest of the nation has become a mythical land where unauthorized immigrants rape, pillage, behead, and run amok. Tensions remain high in this land of immigrants with daily announcements of another city, county or jurisdiction facing a political, economic, and legal maelstrom because an Arizona-style law has reared its ugly head. Inasmuch as Arizonans have been badly hurt by the negative publicity pre- and post-SB1070, anti-immigrants, Republicans and Tea Partiers nationwide have been emboldened to the extent that bilingual education, Chicano Studies, the 14th Amendment, basic health care, primary and higher education, and even school lunches have been placed on the chopping block. Georgia, eager to shed the sweet Peach State nickname and show it's tougher than tough Arizona, passed an anti-immigrant bill early in April that, among other things, makes it a felony to use fake documents when applying for a job, punishable by up to 15 years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
All the while, President Obama's administration watches, winces, and hopes it will weather this human crisis until past the general elections November 2012. But what is the cost of the president's ante tubam trepidat? For immigrant families, the stubborn disregard by Congress to update our unjust and inconsistent immigration laws has meant literally the difference between opportunity vs. disdain, appreciation vs. discrimination, legalization vs. criminalization. For every other American, it has meant a patchwork of bad and worse legislation that weakens the very structures we are told need protection.
As for the president's inability or unwillingness to shift the tide and press to pave the way for more humane, practical and consistent immigration policies, the human toll is severe. Just a few short days from now, nearly one million immigrants will have been detained and deported from the United States, potentially becoming the albatross around this Congress and this president's neck.
One year ago, Governor Brewer assured Americans that SB1070 protected every Arizonan and ensured that the constitutional rights of all Arizona remained "solid, stable, and steadfast." I am not sure her commitment to Arizonans translates well in the times we live in. After Utah's so-called "solution," Georgia's copycat anti-immigrant law, Florida's not-so-sunny proposals, and the mixed-bag of other laws introduced in twenty-two other states, I am very concerned that a statute of intolerance and callousness is being inscribed in the American psyche.
As a dubious anniversary draws near, Americans must resist the temptation to fight history, our present, and our future for lack of more fair, humane and creative options. We are a common-sense, fair, and compassionate people. Our history of immigration is undeniable but our policies on this regard have had a mixed record. The voice of reason and an order to humanely and consistently apply our laws, in spite of a political cost, must come from our national leaders, starting at the top. The president of the United States brought with him a renewed sense of hope and challenge to the status quo. Under President Bush raids and deportations became the norm, but will it also be the norm under President Obama's administration? Change takes courage, and on the day we mark the first anniversary of a shameful chapter in American history, we look forward to the tolling of bells when a rejuvenated hope emerges and the promise for change far surpasses current lassitude on immigration.
Follow Jorge-Mario Cabrera on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jmcabrerapr