Arizona:  That Illegal Look

By Michael I. Niman
ArtVoice (etc.) 5/20/10

The lawmakers running Arizona apparently need a quick lesson in their own history. Rather than learn about the state to which they or their parents likely immigrated, they’d rather ban such education, and cripple their constituents with the same ignorance that has branded them as fools and pariahs.

This month the Arizona legislature passed two loony bills, both signed into law by the governor. The first one mandates that police investigate the citizenship or immigration status of anyone who appears foreign, or as they often put it, “illegal.” Once identified as suspicious, suspects must prove their citizenship or immigration status. The second bill outlaws public school classes that might question these attempts to target minorities for oppressive treatment, or, say, just accurately teach about Arizona’s culturally diverse history. It’s no accident that the two laws appear in tandem.

To prepare for the first law, Arizona’s Maricopa County (that’s where Phoenix is located), with a population of four million people, hired University of Missouri at Kansas City law professor Kris Kobach to train their police. Kobach, a former George W. Bush administration attorney, also represents the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a group that monitors and documents racist activity, identifies the federation as a hate group. The Anti-Defamation League, in condemning the hiring of Kobach, points out that the federation received more than a million dollars in underwriting from a racist group advocating eugenics, the purposeful breeding of a superior race.

Welcome to Arizona.

For $250 an hour, Kobach trains Maricopa police officers in the supposed science of spotting undocumented immigrants. According to Professor Kobach, you can identify them by their “dress or appearance.” Perhaps he expects them to wear mariachi costumes. Their appearance, he explains, will be “out of place or unusual for a specific locale.” So don’t wear your loafers to an Arizona McDonald’s unless you have your papers in order. (Zeigen Sie mir Ihre Papiere!) Suspected “illegals” will also “avoid making eye contact with the officer,” behavior that would put most New Yorkers under suspicion. Kobach explains that aliens also make “evasive maneuvers” when driving, “such as abruptly exiting from the highway,” and it will appear that their “vehicle and/or its occupants have been on a very long trip,” all of which doesn’t bode well for the 37 million tourists who visit Arizona annually, most without their birth certificates or passports.

So in short, if you wind up driving in Arizona with, say, New York license plates on your car, don’t exit the highway or wear a Yankees cap. Be sure to look all cops in the eye, wear a Stetson, and always carry your citizenship papers. Or maybe just pick another state to visit.

Passed by an overwhelmingly Republican state legislature, the bill amounts to a wild irresponsible act of grandstanding, and is backed nationally by that party’s far-right fringe. Bill O’Reilly, for example, speaking on the party’s Fox News network, regularly repeats his argument that radical action was necessary in Arizona since Phoenix’s crime rate is “through the roof,” that “Phoenix is one of the most dangerous cities in the country,” and that it has become “the kidnapping capital of the United States.” This is news to the FBI, which actually records such statistics, and to the city of Phoenix, which late last year reported that “Violent and property crimes in Phoenix continue to drop, despite an increase in population and a challenging economy.” The city boasts that “The numbers of crimes in 2009 are on track to be the lowest in 15 years.”

All of this nonsense is supposedly about keeping “illegal” foreigners out of Arizona. The bulk of these supposed foreigners are Mexicans of Native American ancestry, like the people who settled the first agrarian communities in Arizona in 2000 BCE. The new Arizona dragnets would likely snag, for example, native Hopi residents of Oraibi, Arizona, which was settled about 900 years ago and has been continuously occupied ever since. It’s residents would, if they traveled to Phoenix, fit many of the criteria Kobach outlines for spotting “illegal” immigrants, and would perpetually have to prove their citizenship status.

A quick look at the history of Arizona contextualizes the wackiness of the state legislature’s xenophobia. The Spanish colonized the area we know as Arizona in 1539, making it part of Spain until 1821, when it became part of the newly independent Mexican state. In 1848, the US, in the Mexican-American War, seized the area we now call Arizona. Fifteen years later, during the Civil War, Congress declared Arizona a territory and brutally expelled 7,000 of its native Diné (Navajo) inhabitants. Do the math. After thousands of years of native settlement, Arizona was Spanish and Mexican for 309 years, then became a US territory and state for 147 years. People whose families have been in Arizona for many generations are likely to be short in stature, dark-skinned, and descended from Spanish speakers. And they’re likely to be racially targeted by Maricopa’s Kobach-trained police.

Two generations ago, the population of Arizona was roughly 500,000 people. By 1981, the population grew to just under three million. Today it’s over six and a half million. Most of the white English-speaking population in Arizona hails from this recent immigration. These immigrants can be identified by their pinkish skin and their ability to “fit in” with other pink-skinned people like Kobach and his movement of English-speaking immigrants. Ten years ago Arizona passed a bill outlawing public school education in any language other than English. Last month the Arizona Department of Education started a crackdown on “heavily accented” teachers. (Imagine what would happen if the US Senate adopted a similar policy.)

Is all this Arizona history new to you? Well, don’t feel bad. Soon it will be unknown to Arizona school children as well. This brings us to the second piece of Arizona legislation signed into law this month. Courses in “ethnic studies,” which in Arizona means honors or elective high school courses on Mexican-American, Native-American, and African-American history and studies, are now illegal to teach in Arizona public schools. In a similar vein, state leaders singled out specific books, such as the classic text Pedagogy of the Oppressed by Paulo Freire, which is now verboten in Arizona schools. Humanity has been down this road before way too many times.

Historically, every settler state eventually sanitizes its own history, because, as George Orwell put it, “He who controls the past, controls the future.” In Arizona, this means there’s no place for teaching the history of oppression to a people who are still being oppressed on an increasing basis. If you ignore this oppression, it won’t go away, and that’s the whole idea here.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of journalism and media studies at Buffalo State College. His previous Artvoice columns are available at, archived at, and available globally through syndication.

ęCopyright 2010 Michael I. Niman

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