Longform

Bordering on Revolution: America's War on Mexicans Has Gone Too Far

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia wasn't merely skeptical; he appeared contemptuous of the Justice Department's argument trying to stop Arizona's cops from deporting undocumented Mexicans.

"But if, in fact, somebody who does not belong in this country is in Arizona, Arizona has no power?" asked the incredulous Scalia. "Are you objecting to harassing the — the people who have no business being here? Surely you're not concerned about harassing them?"

God forbid.

Nor did Scalia suffer cara de culo alone.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts concluded an observation by noting, "It seems to me that the federal government just doesn't want to know who's here illegally or not."

With these comments, the United States Supreme Court signaled that its expected ruling this month will, in significant part, validate Arizona's Senate Bill 1070.

If that happens, being brown will permit cops across America to ask: Which brown are you?


A journalist I work with, Monica Alonzo, grew up on the hardscrabble west side of Phoenix with brown skin.

Although she is an American, something as simple as stopping to fill her gas tank could prompt a cruel refrain: "Go back to Mexico."

She remembers the white school-board members who voted themselves out of paying taxes to support the mostly Latino school in the town of El Mirage. Her cousin was routinely pulled over if he ventured into a neighboring white community.

But these are memories, not complaints. This treatment did not stop Monica Alonzo. She made herself into an award-winning investigative reporter.

Today, she buys gas where she chooses.

She put the petty meanness behind her and made something of herself.

But SB 1070 changed everything.

In Arizona, brown people, citizen and immigrant, must now prove that their papers are in order. We sic badges and dogs on people of color. Sheriff Joe Arpaio's men wear ski masks and arm themselves with automatic weapons to stop Mexicans with cracked windshields. Families are separated, with parents deported and children left to fend for themselves. Those who remain are terrorized.

After one Arpaio sweep through the town of Guadalupe, children were too frightened to attend their Catholic confirmation lest relatives be arrested.

Like the pre-Civil War era of free and slave states, America is about to divide along color lines.

Six states already have a version of Arizona's bill and are awaiting the ruling for implementation. In all, 16 states — including Florida — filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to support SB 1070.

Where once we depended upon the federal government to protect minorities from firehoses and segregated schoolhouses named Booker T. Washington or George Washington Carver, this month the Supreme Court is poised to tell us how far local cops can go to detain brown people.

As if the federal government hadn't gone far enough.

In fact, President Obama has deported 1.5 million Latinos, more than any president. Such a massive displacement of humanity does not come without brutality.

In the first six months of 2011, 46,000 mothers and fathers were shipped back to Mexico and left their children in America. And more than 20,000 other parents were ordered out but have yet to depart. Roughly 22 percent of all deportees were forced to abandon children — children who are American citizens.

What SB 1070 does is criminalize the undocumented. The law forces all police officers to ascertain a person's immigration status whenever a cop interacts with a brown person. Lights on a license plate too dim? A call about domestic violence? If an officer harbors any suspicion, he or she must ask for proof of citizenship. And if a cop doesn't do that, any citizen can sue the cop for not taking deportation seriously. To protect against lawsuits, the cautious cop must question all Latinos.

The stated purpose of SB 1070 is "attrition through enforcement," a chillingly efficient phrase.

How does the cop on the beat tell a Mexican from a Mexican-American?

And so, the 74 percent of all Latinos in America who are, in reality, U.S. citizens must be harassed about their origins. Unlike everyone else, they must carry papers.

Why?

Obama sells the roundup of brown people through a program called Safe Communities. The alternative is clear enough.

Have we forgotten that the Irish, Italians, Jews, and Cubans generated almost as many mug shots as American dreams?

Polls show that SB 1070 and similar laws in other states are supported by voters at rates of 60 to 70 percent nationally.

In states that have passed laws allowing local law enforcement to hunt the undocumented, the financial impact has been devastating.

Last August, Monica Alonzo examined labor shortages in the farm economy, where an estimated 80 percent of the work force is undocumented.

She learned that efforts to recruit Americans to pick crops have failed abysmally.

In the late 1990s, Alonzo reported, "California launched a 'welfare to farmwork' program in the Central Valley at a time when regional unemployment was as high as 20 percent... A massive campaign addressed training, transportation, and other obstacles to getting workers in the fields. Though there were more than 100,000 potential workers, only three jobs were filled."

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Michael Lacey is the executive editor of Village Voice Media, a group of 15 metropolitan newsweeklies that stretch from Miami to San Francisco. He writes frequently for Phoenix New Times, which he co-founded in 1970. In 1997, he co-founded New Times Broward-Palm Beach, and since then, the paper has seen circulation increase nearly ten-fold. Lacey’s work has been recognized in the following journalism competitions: Unity Awards in Media, Mencken Awards, Heywood Broun Awards, Golden Quill Awards, Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism, Nixon Newspaper National Journalism Writing Awards, John Bartlow Martin Awards, Scripps Howard Foundation National Journalism Awards, Best of the West Awards, Maggie Awards, and the Arizona Press Club’s Don Schellie Award for Feature Column Writing.
Contact: Michael Lacey