As one of the five full-time media relations specialists working for Maricopa County Sheriff and reality TV star Joe Arpaio -- "America's Toughest Sheriff" -- Detective Aaron Douglas deals with the world's media more than most. Though he is a local official, his is often the first voice heard by many of the foreign correspondents covering immigration in the United States.
"We talk to media from literally all over world: New Zealand, Australia, United Kingdom, Mexico, Chinese and other parts of the Orient," Douglas drawled in a Southern accent. "We just did a series with a TV station from Mexico City about the isolation of illegal immigrants and why we're putting them in a tent." He was referring to a controversial march reported and discussed widely by international media and bloggers last week.
Alongside reports on Pres. Barack Obama's announcement in Phoenix last week of his plan to revive the American Dream by fixing the U.S. housing crisis that led to the global economic crisis, millions of viewers, listeners and readers around the world also got stories reminiscent of the American nightmare Obama was elected to overcome, Guantanamo. "Immigrant Prisoners Humiliated in Arizona," was the title of a story in Spain's Onda Cero radio show; "Arpaio for South African President," declared a blogger in that country; an op-ed in Mexico's Cambio newspaper denounced "the inhuman, discriminatory and criminal treatment of immigrants by Arizona's radical, anti-immigrant Sheriff, Joe Arpaio." Stories of this week's massive protest of Arapaio will likely be seen and heard alongside reports of Obama's speech to Congress in media all over the world, as well.
The proliferation of stories in international media and in global forums about the Guantanamo-like problems in the country's immigrant detention system -- death, abuse and neglect at the hands of detention facility guards; prolonged and indefinite detention of immigrants (including children and families) denied habeas corpus and other fundamental rights; filthy, overcrowded and extremely unhealthy facilities; denial of basic health services -- are again tarnishing the U.S. image abroad, according to several experts. As a result, reports from Arizona and immigrant detention facilities have created a unique problem: they are making it increasingly difficult for Obama to persuade the planet's people that the United States is ready claim exceptional leadership on human rights in a soon-to-be-post-Guantanamo world.
Consider the case of Mexico. Just last week, following news reports from Arizona, the Mexican government, which is traditionally silent or very tepid in its criticism of U.S. immigration and other policies, issued a statement in which it "energetically protested the undignified way in which the Mexicans were transferred to 'Tent City'" in Maricopa County.
David Brooks, U.S correspondent for Mexico's La Jornada newspaper, believes that immigrant detention stories hit Mexicans closer to home because those reportedly being abused in detention are not from a far off country; they are family, friends, neighbors and fellow citizens. In the same way that Guantanamo erased the idea of U.S. leadership in human rights in the Bush era, says Brooks, who was born in Mexico, practices in immigrant detention facilities like those reported by global media in Maricopa County may begin to do so in the Obama era if something does not change. "Mexicans have never seen the U.S. as a great model for promotion of human rights. But with Obama we take him at his word. We're expecting some change," said Brooks. "But that will not last long if we see him continuing Bush's [immigration] policies: raids, increasing detention, deportation. Regardless of his excuse, he will quickly become mas de lo mismo (more of the same) in terms of the experience down south." If uncontested, the expression of such sentiments far beyond Mexico and Mexican immigrants could lead to the kind of American exceptionalism Obama doesn't want.
In a March 2008 report, Jorge Bustamante, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Human Rights of Migrants, concluded that "the United States has failed to adhere to its international obligations to make the human rights of the 37.5 million migrants living in the country a national priority, using a comprehensive and coordinated national policy based on clear international obligations." Asked how his report was received in different countries, Bustamante said, "The non-governmental organizations have really responded. In the United States and outside the United States- in Mexico, in Guatemala, in Indonesia and other countries -- NGO's are using my report to frame their concerns and demands in their own countries -- and to raise criticism about the United States."
For her part, Alison Parker, deputy director of the U.S. program of Human Rights Watch, fears a global government "race to the bottom" around immigrant detention policies. "My concern is that as the rest of world sees the United States practices, we increase the risk that this will give the green light to other governments to be just as abusive or more abusive as the United States."
If there is a positive note to be heard in the growing global chorus of critique of and concern about U.S immigration policy, it is to be found among those human rights activists and groups doing what W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson and other civil rights activists did in previous eras: bring their issues to the global stage. Government documents from the civil rights era, documents that were released just a few years ago, illustrate how members of the Kennedy and Johnson State departments and even Kennedy and Johnson themselves were acutely aware of and sensitive to how denunciations in global forums of racial discrimination in United States had a devastating impact on the U.S. prestige abroad.
Such a situation around the rights of migrants today, says Oscar Chacon of the National Alliance of Latin American and Caribbean Communities, a Chicago-based global NGO run by and for immigrants, creates an opportunity out of the globalization of the images of both Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Barack Obama. "The world will be able to see him as the rogue sheriff that he is" said Chacon, who was in Mexico City attending a conference on immigration at which U.S. detention practices were criticized. "And it will be up to the Obama administration to show the world that Arpaio is not a symbol of the rest of the country when it comes to immigration."