A Year After SB 1070, the Deportation Pipeline Still Begins in Washington

From Arizona to Georgia, states are vying to make draconian policy. But the feds still set the rules that are deporting a record number of people.

By Seth Freed Wessler Apr 25, 2011

One year ago, late on the Friday night in April when Arizona’s governor signed SB 1070 into law, I found myself looking north at that state. I’d traveled to see some friends on the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca and was there while the infamous bill became law. Almost every conversation I had included at least a passing comment about SB 1070: a sense of disgust, confusion or fear. Sitting in plastic chairs at a food stand on the edge of the city’s colonial center, one friend, a young Oaxacan political nerd and student, said, "It’s amazing that they despise us so much." He pointed at the apronned women laying strips of chorizo on the cooking fire and to the dozen others lined up to eat there and said, "From here, we think we’re talking about normal people who travel there, and then maybe travel back. In Arizona, they look like monsters."

North of the border, all across the United States, non-citizens have just survived a year during which their status as "normal people" has been aggressively challenged. On April 23, 2010, when Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 into law, it seemed that the situation could get no worse: a state had passed a bill that facilitated racial profiling while criminalizing the very existence of a whole population of people. In the following months, other states–at least 24 of them–began to consider similar laws. It appeared that a checkerboard of anti-immigrant laws might be passed, one legislature at a time, until they consumed the country.

But for all the attention Brewer’s law and its spawn have drawn, and despite all of its toxic implications, the SB 1070 wave of the past 12 months isn’t what’s made the day-to-day lives of non-citizens in places like Arizona so unstable lately. Indeed, before SB 1070 took effect, a U.S. District Court judge blocked most of the law. Two weeks ago, a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld that injunction. And most of the copycat bills in other states have failed to pass. (See map below.)

Rather, the perils immigrants face today are mostly the result of an increasingly aggressive approach to immigration enforcement pursued primarily by the federal government. Contrary to the claims of anti-immigrant state-level politicians such as Brewer, the Obama administration has led an unprecedented expansion of mass deportation and racial profiling, lethal border enforcement and opaque detention centers. What’s becoming clear is that the president, his government and the bulk of Congress are all interested primarily in detaining and deporting massive numbers of people–and not just instrumentally, as a means of looking tough enough on immigrants to garner support for broader reform, but also in principal. The federal government’s demonstrable commitment today is terrorizing immigrant communities.

The Deadly Divide

Just a few hundred dusty yards south of the border check point into Nogales, Ariz., close to 100 people packed 10 to a side at picnic tables in a blocky concrete and corrugated metal structure. It was an Arizona morning in February that was so cold the cactus had started to freeze and the men, women and some children, small ones who grasped tightly to their mother’s fingers, had come there for a hot meal at the Kino Border Project comedor, a Jesuit-run respite for recently deported people. They’d all been deported days or hours before, some at 4 a.m. that morning. Many had spent months in detention centers before their eventual deportation and others were picked up by border patrol officers while attempting the journey north through the desert. Before filling their stomachs, a priest led those gathered there in prayer. Tired and hungry, the space was quiet as they ate.

When the meal was over, most everyone walked back to the street, prepared to make another difficult trip to the cities and towns they’d come from. For some, this meant heading back into Mexico and for others it was a return north, over the border, into the United States where their lives remain.

Santiago Urbina was one of the men who had not made it north on this attempt. The 22-year-old sat alone at a table after the others had filed out, his face covered in creeping scabs and long red scratches, like a map of his horrific journey from southern Mexico near Oaxaca to the northern border.

At midnight, three nights earlier, in a clearing among the cactus and shrubs, two men carrying cuernos de chivo, which translates to "goat horn" but means Ak-47, chased him down, beat him and left him for dead, after they’d taken the $40 in his pocket. Border Patrol found him, carried him into their wagon and detained him for the night, before throwing him back to Mexico in the morning. A nun had just wrapped Urbina’s arm in bandages and given him a sling.

Urbina had come north to find work picking vegetables in the Arizona fields, so that he could send money to his wife and baby. He says he will not try to cross again, feeling lucky to still be alive this time.

Risks grow daily for hundreds of thousands of people like Urbina–determined, desperate fathers and mothers who are willing to endure the hard life of migrant labor in order to feed their families on the low-wage jobs our economy has created for them. Our creaking, restrictive immigration system leaves them with no route to those job but to cross the desert on foot; there they meet armies of people, both official and illicit, who threaten their lives as much as the desert heat.

Customs and Border Patrol officers make up the largest uniformed federal law enforcement agency in the country. Last year, in addition to providing hundreds of millions of dollars in added funding for the agency, the Obama administration sent 1,200 National Guard troops to the border. In Urbina’s case, Border Patrol found him and brought him out of the desert, but it was the militarized border buildup that pushed him further into the dangerous terrain in the first place.

Just down the road from the Nogales soup kitchen is a parking lot that’s been transformed into another gathering site for deportees. There, No More Deaths, an organization run by young American volunteers, provides basic medical care for migrants who have spent days walking through the desert and collects information on their treatment by Border Patrol. As I arrived at the gates leading into the lot, two young men and two young women stood together chatting in English. I assumed they were all volunteers but soon found out that one of them had been deported just a couple weeks earlier. The man, who asked his name not be used, was at work at his Phoenix tattoo parlor when a group of deputies for Maricopa Country Sheriff Joe Arpaio rushed through the doors and began arresting the men inside.

Dressed in baggy pants and a hoodie, the tattoo artist has no childhood memories of Mexico. He’d come to Phoenix when he was 2 years old. His 1-year-old daughter is now an impossible four hour drive north.

The federal government’s culpability for this man’s deportation–and the deportations of almost 400,000 people in fiscal year 2010, which is a record–gets obscured by the glam notoriety of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Arizona’s anti-immigrant lawmakers. And it was Arpaio’s deputies who, the man says, barged into the tattoo parlor, guns blazing. But he exists with the feds’ support; until recently, the federal government authorized Arpaio’s antics by deputizing his officers as immigration officers. The deputizing program, called 287(g), makes local cops into immigration agents. Apraio’s clear abuses of that power have forced Immigration and Customs Enforcement to suspend partly his authorization under the program, but he continues to act as if it’s in place. And ICE continues, happily, to deport the people he rounds up.

It’s a similar situation in Georgia, the first and only state to have actually passed an SB 1070 copycat bill through both legislative houses; the bill currently awaits Gov. Nathan Deal’s signature. Four Georgia counties and the state police have signed 287(g) agreements and those deputized by with immigration enforcement powers have engaged in unchecked racial profiling, according to ACLU of Georgia. This has been possible in Georgia because the federal government has authorized it. As in Arizona, the courts will likely block the most aggressive parts of Georgia’s own show me your papers law, but the federal programs that preceded and will live beyond these laws do the trick on their own.

‘They’re Leaving in Droves’

All of this is not to suggest, however, that SB 1070 has done no harm. It has done plenty. And so will the law in Georgia, even if it is partially blocked by the courts, too. The impact of these bills, even if they never go into effect, is that they send waves of fear and confusion into immigrant communities, indeed into whole states. In the period since SB 1070 passed, uncounted numbers of immigrants have fled their homes in Arizona. Social service providers and community organizers there told me that, since the bills passed, families have just disappeared–packed their bags and left the state. A worker at a Head Start in Phoenix said that numerous children of undocumented parents have been left with documented family members because undocumented parents felt they had to flee the state or risk deportation. And the provisions in the law that were not blocked by the court, including one that makes it a crime to harbor or transport undocumented immigrants, put everyone at risk.

There are now 12 states, in addition to Georgia, where SB 1070-like bills are still being considered. Versions of the law have died everywhere else they’ve been introduced. While the bills are unlikely to pass in most of these places–eyes are still on Alabama, South Carolina and few others hot states–their introduction in the first place and serious debate about their passage function as a sort of threat, a tool of intimidation that can be nearly as powerful of a tool for terrorizing immigrant communities as actually passing bills.

The core supporters of SB 1070 applaud this. Russell Pearce, the right-wing Arizona state senate president, said joyously to the Arizona Daily Star, "They’re leaving in caravans"

"I’ve talked to a U-Haul dealer," Pearce continued. "He said business has never been better."

Meanwhile, the Obama administration’s deportation pipeline keeps pumping. President Obama has refused pleas that he halt deportations of the young people who would gain a path to citizenship if Congress passes the DREAM Act, which the administration vocally supports. If the president were to change his posture, the young tattoo artist I met in the No More Deaths parking lot would likely have remained in his home. Now, he must figure out a life in a place he left as a toddler.

The administration has also lifted a moratorium on the deportation of Haitians, which it put into place following the country’s earthquake in 2010. A recently deported man died of Cholera while locked up in the Haitian prison that deportees are held in when they arrive there.

In a county jail in northern Florida, a petite 21-year-old women whom I’ll call Natalia sat at a metal table in the center of her cell block, which holds a few dozen detained women. Natalia told me that she was born in the Bahamas, but to Haitian parents. Because of Haitian and Bahamian laws, she is a citizen of Haiti. She came to the United States, she says, at 2 days old. Natalia, whose girlish voice is accented by her southern upbringing, pushed off tears and told me that she had to leave her 1-year-old baby with her mother near Miami. She and her boyfriend, the baby’s father, were both arrested after stealing clothes from a mall. Her appointed public defender, a private attorney with a state contract, told her to take a plea to get a lower sentence. The lawyer failed to tell Natalia that the plea would result in detention and likely deportation.

When I met her, she awaited deportation to Haiti–a place she has never been and in which she has no remaining family. She speaks no Creole. If she’s deported, she does not expect to see her baby again. It’s a remarkable penalty for shoplifting. In the room with her were at least two other women who similarly feared that they’d be separated from their children.

Natalia’s passage from the criminal justice system to deportation is an increasingly common route. By 2013, the Department of Homeland Security hopes to have activated a program to facilitate this process in every jail in the country. It’s already operating 1,210 jurisdictions in 41 states. The program, misleadingly called Secure Communities, sends print data to Immigration and Customs Enforcement on anyone booked into any participating jail. While ICE claims it is meant to target people convicted of serious crimes, only a relatively small number of those deported fit into that category. The majority are convicted of a low-level violation like shoplifting, or of no crime at all.

For the last year, the country’s stare has focused on Arizona as it has vied for most fantastically anti-immigrant state in the country. This month, that designation has shifted to Georgia, and the fight is on to ensure that it’s the last place where this show unfolds. But whether or not the SB 1070 wave has finally crested, little will change unless immigration policy changes at the federal level, where the ultimate the power lies.

At the Nogales soup kitchen, a man named Lucio talked about his home in Oaxaca, where he had not been in a decade. "I don’t know what is there for me to go back to. My family is in California, my wife and my kids," he said, describing his terribly normal life in the home from which he’d been ejected. It was hardly the story of the monster he must be to deserve this.