Jewish Journal

Welcome to Arizona

by JewishJournal.com

August 4, 2010 | 2:10 pm

By Elissa Barrett
Elissa Barrett is the Executive Director of the Progressive Jewish Alliance.  Last week she documented her journey in words and pictures on twitter.

“Welcome to Hell,” said Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox only half jokingly to the hundreds of people packed into St. Matthews Catholic Church a mile’s march from City Hall in Phoenix.  At 4:00 am that morning (July 29, 2010), I boarded a bus bound for Arizona, one among many filled with Los Angeles County Federation of Labor members and an assortment of Jewish, Muslim and Christian clergy.  Undeterred by the 14-hour roundtrip, we sped through the desert on our way to protest SB 1070, portions of which went into effect that day despite federal judge Susan Bolton’s partial injunction.

Wilcox’s greeting, while somewhat stark, summarizes the range of views about Arizona.  For the ranchers and El Norte side border dwellers who view with growing concern the northward spread of Mexico’s drug wars, Arizona is a land of terror and uncertainty.  My own family is no stranger to these fears:  my sister and her family have lived in El Paso, Texas for almost a decade.  She used to cross the border every month to staff a free reproductive health clinic, but no more.  For years before the cartel wars exploded, she and other health workers witnessed a growing scourge of murders targeting women who labored in Juarez’s NAFTA enabled factories:  the proverbial canaries in the coal mine.

For the men, women and children who flee endemic poverty and violence, Arizona has long been a land of refuge, hope and opportunity – recently transformed into hostile territory treacherous for many mixtas (families whose members have varying citizenship status).  At St. Matthews Church we heard the gut wrenching stories of those families.

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Last week Elissa documented her journey in words and pictures on twitter)

There was the young woman whose mother fled domestic violence when the girl was a toddler and who did not discover she herself was undocumented until the passage of Proposition 300 stripped her of the public scholarships she had won to attend Arizona State University.  Or take the residents of Guadalupe, AZ – population 5,000 – who were rounded up en masse before SB 1070 even went into effect and subjected to warrantless detention by deputies, often untrained civilians christened and armed by local law enforcement.  And what about the young Marine, an Iraq War veteran, whose words came out in a choked staccato as he recounted the racist invectives and unceasing questions of border police he encounters following each visit to see relatives in Sonora, Mexico – pulled over for the crime of “driving while brown.”

One may say – Certainly, we can sympathize with the human suffering of these individuals, but what about the jobs “those people” are taking from us law-abiding, tax paying U.S. citizens?

On July 8, 2010, United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez appeared on television as part of a national “Take Our Jobs” Campaign designed to recruit citizens and legal residents for jobs usually filled by undocumented farm workers and to urge enactment of federal immigration reform.  The U.S. Bureau of Labor rates farm work as one of the 10 most dangerous jobs in the nation.  Each summer, scores of workers around the country die from heat and dehydration.  Over 5,000 people have responded to “Take Our Jobs” so far.  Once they found out what the job entailed, however, only 3 were willing to work the hot Arizona fields, land that yields 25% of all lettuce consumed in America.

The stories we heard in Phoenix are not new, even if they are laced with the specific circumstances of the moment.  On our bus, people told the stories of their relatives and ancestors who had journeyed to and within America.  Some were freed slaves who left the agricultural south for the industrialized north, while others fled the dustbowl of Oklahoma to farm California’s bread basket. Some came from the shifting borders of Eastern Europe in search of di goldene medine (the golden land) or left Scandinavia in search of opportunity.  These stories remind us of the fluidity of borders and the extent to which borders are often constructs of time, geography and political power, the results of which we see in conflict zones like Iraq, Yugoslavia or Rwanda. 

But borders can also be inhospitable wastelands.  That is what struck me the most during our journey to and from Phoenix.  The desert you pass through is nothing but hour after hour of unrelenting sun, sky and sand.  No water.  No shelter.  No food.  No mercy.  I thought – A person must be desperate, driven by a dream or traumatized by terror, to cross this divide.  I thought of the New York Times report last week about the morgues in Arizona border cities filled to overflowing with the bodies of people who made that desperate crossing and failed. 

None of these complex realities point to a simple solution.  On the one hand, the need for federal legislative reform is clear, and is perhaps the only thing about which everyone can agree.  On the other hand, that legislation must humanely and pragmatically address the economic realities of migrant workers and mixta communities while providing meaningful border security.  Now more than ever we need courage and vision to tackle the complexities of immigration reform head on.  We need to resist the instinct to circle the wagons and, instead, welcome all the stories, from all sides.  Perhaps those stories, like the ones I heard in Phoenix, will help provide some of the political courage so lacking in Washington nowadays. 

Last week I was welcomed to hell.  But I was also welcomed to a land of promise.  I was welcomed to the complexity that is Arizona, the dream that is America.  As Phoenix City Councilmember Mike Johnson said, “We will only find our way if we believe that this is about Justice, not Just About Us.”

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