Skip to main content

Arizona should kill immigration bill

By Stephen Lemons, Special to CNN
  • Stephen Lemons says activists chained themselves to Arizona Capitol to protest immigration bill
  • Lemons: If governor signs law, it will create police state and open door to racial profiling
  • Bill lets police make stops based on "reasonable suspicion" of illegal immigration
  • Lemons: Gov. Jan Brewer must veto bill in state in which nearly third of population is Hispanic

Editor's note: Stephen Lemons is a blogger and columnist with Phoenix New Times in Phoenix, Arizona.

Phoenix, Arizona (CNN) -- Every movement needs heroes. The fight against discrimination in the state of Arizona just got nine.

Sometime before noon Tuesday, nine activists entwined their bodies in a thick steel chain, locking themselves to the doors of the Arizona Capitol in protest against the recently passed Senate Bill 1070, a bill that would open the door to racial profiling in the Grand Canyon state and force all law enforcement officers with "reasonable suspicion" to inquire about the immigration status of those they stop.

The bill awaits the signature or veto of Gov. Jan Brewer, a Republican facing an election challenge, who is likely to sign it despite widespread opposition here from everyone from police chiefs and civil libertarians to religious leaders and businessmen. (On Sunday, the Roman Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, Roger Mahony, weighed in, comparing the proposed law to "German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques.")

In a statement, the nine activists said they chained themselves to the doors "because nothing else has worked. ... Our purpose is to expose Arizona's apartheid legislation, and to uphold our dignity and human rights."

If the use of the word apartheid seems extreme to the uninitiated, all I can say is that you have to know this bill, and this state, to understand that it is, unfortunately, all too correct. Brewer should veto this dangerous, abhorrent and costly measure.

Jones: Arizona had to take charge on immigration

The new legislation, which was written by state Sen. Russell Pearce, resembles the dictates of an authoritarian government. It would presume all those stopped by police to be immigrants unlawfully present in the United States unless they are carrying one of several forms of federal or state ID. Even citizens could be held if they do not have their papers on them.

Those here illegally would be turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Aliens here legally, who are not in possession of their registration documents, could be fined $500 and jailed for six months.

Police agencies that do not enforce federal immigration law "to less than the full extent permitted," according to the bill, could be sued by any legal Arizona resident and fined anywhere from $1,000 to $5,000 a day.

Although the new law would apply to all residents, in determining "reasonable suspicion" the legislation allows police to take into consideration any two of the following: race, color or national origin. Considering the state's proximity to Mexico, and the fact that nearly one-third of Arizona's population is Hispanic, mass racial profiling will be the inevitable consequence if the governor fails to veto the measure.

Video: Lawmaker defends immigration bill
Video: Arizona's immigration bill uproar
Video: Arizona's illegal immigration crackdown

As the legislation has inched toward becoming law, the outcry against it has become more and more vocal, drawing both the fringes and concerned citizens into a carnival of the enraged and the desperate. The debate has become polarized, with proponents of the legislation calling opponents "open borders anarchists," and critics referring to the other side's partisans as "racists" or "Nazis."

On Monday, as the state Senate debated the measure, prayer vigils, hunger strikers and protesters comparing the bill to police state-style roundups competed with Second Amendment enthusiasts toting assault rifles and pistols, all for the attention of the media.

For the most part, the pro-firearms people didn't interact with the SB 1070 protesters (gun laws in Arizona allow residents legally to carry their firearms either openly or concealed), but one enraged gun-wearer began shouting, blaming the demonstrators for the death of Rob Krentz, the southern Arizona rancher slain recently, some believe by a drug runner or human smuggler from Mexico.

The man was mostly ignored by the anti-SB 1070 crowd. They were intent on a mock funeral of political "courage," complete with coffins, weeping women and a minister with the United Church of Christ, outfitted in a dog collar.

But on Tuesday, the chaos was more desperate. Hundreds swarmed the Capitol for a rally urging Brewer to veto the legislation, while the bill's supporters stayed away. Then the nine affixed themselves to the Capitol, which dates back to Arizona's days as a territory.

The Capitol Police had to squeeze through the crush of reporters and activists who had crowded near the spectacle, refusing to disperse. The nine, seated, remained quiet. The bolt cutters came out, chains were cut, and the demonstrators were arrested. Later, they were transported to the Fourth Avenue Jail and charged with disorderly conduct.

But before they were bused away, something small happened -- not that odd, really, but strangely moving.

From inside a room where they had been sequestered to await their lawyers, the nine activists, all Hispanics and 20-somethings, began singing "We Shall Overcome," the anthem of the civil rights movement.

As I listened along with other reporters, bystanders, tourists and groups of schoolchildren there to inspect the Capitol, I felt something like hope tinged with defiance, even as SB 1070 sits poised to rend Arizona's social fabric, bringing forth a new order that is odious -- and un-American.

Nine brave young men and women just stood in the way of that injustice, in an outcry they hope their nation hears.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Stephen Lemons.