08/21/2012 05:42 pm ET Updated Oct 21, 2012

Wrapped in the Flag: Immigration, Ethnic Studies, and Gun Legislation in Arizona

Written by Frances Julia Riemer

While many of us on Arizona's college campuses applaud the recent Supreme Court's decision rejecting part of our state's immigration policy, we also know that calls for the policing of borders, the abolition of ethnic studies programs, and the legalization of guns on campus will soon begin again. Each time the initiatives return, they come wrapped in fear. "We need to protect ourselves. We need a Sonic Barrier," Mike King, VP of Border Technology testified recently to Arizona Senate's Committee on Border Security. Apparently we also need guns on our campuses. "You don't know when a criminal is going to carry a gun anywhere," said State Representative David Gowan. "That's the purpose of carrying a gun with you, to defend yourself." But the existence of fear talk shouldn't be a surprise here. Our country's history of immigration has always been entangled with race and class. And of course, here in Arizona, we're not only at the border, we actually used to be Mexico.

What I find particularly interesting is that this rhetoric of defense of self and nation state is also coupled with a discourse of individual rights. Indeed, talk of freedom, value placed on the individual, and constitutional rights advances these agendas by appropriating the moral authority associated with core liberal values. Why do liberal tropes hold so much power? In the border state of Arizona, demarcated by racial and class-based differences, legislation promoting border protection, assimilation to whiteness, and gun ownership may be desired, but as debates around these three key conservative issues illustrate, they are most easily defended when wrapped up in the flag.

Despite a significant decrease in crime at the border, we are relentlessly reminded that the border with Mexico is dangerous. Drug traffickers and illegal immigrants regularly appear in the same sentence in the popular local press. But fear is not the only way that the state government has defended its border initiative. State officials regularly co-opt liberal tropes of nation state, equality, and individual rights. To quote Arizona Governor Jan Brewer: "At the end of what is certain to be a long legal struggle, Arizona will prevail in its right to protect our citizens. ... The law protects all of us, every Arizona citizen and everyone here in our state lawfully. And, it does so while ensuring that the constitutional rights of ALL in Arizona are undiminished -- holding fast to the diversity that has made Arizona so great."

In Arizona, we are told that it is not only our border that needs to be protected, but our classrooms as well. In this case, it is the Tucson Unified School District's much noted Mexican American Studies Program that is the invader. Talk defending Arizona's ban on Ethnic Studies Programs in Arizona K-12 schools reflects familiar themes of freedom, national and personal security, and constitutional rights. Tom Horne, the state's Attorney General and a vocal supporter of Arizona's immigration bill SB 1070, wrote, "A fundamental role of the public schools is to take students of different backgrounds and teach them to treat each other as individuals and not of the race they were born into. Tucson Unified District does it the opposite. ...They divide (students) by race and teach each group about its own background only." Again, rationale for state policy, in this case around diversity and assimilation, is shrouded in talk exalting individual rights and national identity. Horne clings to the European immigrant story, the shedding old ethnic skin and becoming individuals -- where individuals means European Americans.

But securing our classrooms in terms of pedagogy is only part of the agenda. We are also told that we need to secure the classroom physically. If law-abiding people can carry guns one step outside the campus to keep criminals at bay, supporters of Arizona's proposed SB 1467 asked, why not allow them to enter a university with their firearms? Advocates for SB 1467 flavor a rights discourse with wild west rhetoric. "Guns save lives, and it's a constitutional right of our citizens," former Arizona state senator Russell Pearce said of the guns-on-campus proposal.

Immigration, ethnic studies, and guns on campuses may appear to be discrete issues, yet they form a discursive web of control in which my state's educational institutions are dangling. It is not difficult to make the argument that the initiatives are related to the increase in the size of Arizona's Hispanic population, who now make up nearly 30 percent of the state's residents. Deportation, forced assimilation, and the use of weapons to protect (and terrorize) have a long history here in the southwest. Yet it is the rhetoric of liberalism, that of individual rights, defense of self, and defense of nation state, that is most seductively employed to package and sell the efforts.