In a victory for longtime fans of compassion and decency, Joe Arpaio, the callous sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, has halted immigration-enforcement activities after a federal judge ruled that he had engaged in law enforcement found to be racial profiling. By any measure, the sheriff’s methods are inhumane, focus on the symptom and not the cause, and are rooted in a lack of understanding of the significant role immigrants have played in the shaping of this country.
While the sheriff has been dreadful on issues affecting everyone in Phoenix, such as refusal to investigate rape and county jail conditions, it is Arpaio’s record on immigration that has earned him his cold reputation on a national level.
Understanding the fears and anxieties of many of Phoenix’s white residents concerning immigration, Arpaio seized on these fears by creating law-enforcement units specifically designed to round up undocumented workers. Much like the War on Drugs, many of the tactics involved in these operations include: posting up in target communities, searching for any excuse to make an arrest, and proceeding to look into the status of the suspects. As Peter Yang reports in his investigative piece on Arpaio, arrest numbers went up significantly, as roadblocks were created, implicitly tasked with targeting undocumented workers. While legal issues were sure to come up, politically, Arpaio came out a winner.
The irony here, of course, is that in some respect the very same insecurity that drives many of these harsh policies in the first place, has in turn become internalized within the Latino community. Fear has been the desired effect on Latinos, and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has been largely successful. In the process, the humanity and the dignity of not only undocumented workers, but their documented counterparts have been under attack, as they constantly find themselves under intense scrutiny, or to borrow a term from Chris Rock, “born suspect,” assumed suspicious as a function of appearance.
Of course, the fear and paranoia of immigrants is nothing new. Many of the same concerns arising out of recent intensified immigration are similar to those expressed throughout the last 150 years. Fears of job insecurity and fears of cultural and religious values becoming undermined all remain standard and consistent when it comes to immigration. Looking back, however, we know that many of those fears were misplaced, and the country has become richer in so many ways as a result of immigration, a vast melting pot to borrow a cliché.
Obviously a large rise in undocumented workers is an issue and one that needs addressing. Unfortunately, the policy coming from political opportunists such as Arpaio and Sheriff Terry Johnson out of North Carolina, go after the symptom and not the cause. Trade agreements such as NAFTA have facilitated this often-discussed large increase in immigration, as millions of farmers in Mexico were driven off their land as a result of cheap subsidized imports. These farmers were faced with two choices: stay in their home countries marked by miserly living conditions and little to no economic promise, or move to somewhere better. Most families, if placed in a similar situation, go with option two.
We need a new dialogue on immigration. We need dialogue that steers clear of victimization and fear, one that seeks to understand the story of the least among us, and one that perceives of the humanity of those searching for a better life.