An immigrant song

What we can learn from our neighbors to the south
By DAVID KISH  |  May 17, 2010


Arizona has declared war on Mexico. SB1070, the incendiary new immigration bill signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer, has set off national boycotts, lawsuits, protests, and denouncements. Right-wingers like Tom Ridge are balking. Even the sheriff of one Arizona county (Pima, south of Phoenix) has called it “stupid and racist.” Although amended in its very first week of existence (in an attempt to tamp fears of racial profiling), this ill-conceived law still requires state and local police to demand proof of citizenship from anyone they stop who looks illegal — whatever that means. It will certainly lead to racial profiling of legal Mexican-Americans as well as desperate Mexican citizens. Logistically, morally, constitutionally, and economically, the new law is indefensible.

Mexican President Felipe Calderon has criticized it, but his words ring hollow since his American-backed crackdown on drugs has led to more than 20,000 murders in northern Mexico since 2005. This bloodbath — distinct from (though exacerbating) the phenomenon of illegals coming here to work peacefully — has hurt tourism and increased poverty south of the border, while fueling fear north of the border. This fear has narrowed Arizonans’ attitudes, and trivialized the importance and ubiquity of Mexican culture — on which cash-strapped Arizona capitalizes every day.

From my home in Tucson, I’ve watched the immigration debate unfold. I’ve witnessed self-professed liberals act like the worst kind of gringos. “They’re always drunk and have too many babies,” a lifelong Democrat recently told me (narrow-mindedness has no party affiliation). My memories, however, are richer for their Sonoran overtones: a “birthday cake” of pineapple tamales with sparklers on top; a mission-style cathedral mass with a full mariachi band converting every dirge into a happy waltz; a highway overpass festooned with colorful metal panels cut to mimic Mexican paper art; girls decked out in gowns and tiaras for their quinceañera parties; street vendors selling homemade burritos; Virgin of Guadalupe tattoos on shaved heads; grocery stores with entire piñata aisles; immaculate low-riders and their proud owners. All already stateside and legal, mis amigos!

Every November, downtown Tucson comes alive with a nighttime parade celebrating the Mexican Catholic holiday, the Day of the Dead. Thousands of people dress as skeletons and carry pictures of departed loved ones; scores more line the streets to watch. In the years I’ve participated, I have never seen a single act of violence, vandalism, or disrespect. Yet, that’s what Americans conjure when they think of cultural immigration.

This fear can be seen in the presence of the Border Patrol, their impromptu checkpoints increasingly popping up on Southwest roads. Each time I go through the one near Tombstone, it’s a little bigger, graduating from a few agents, a tent, and a couple of cruisers, to a fleet of vehicles, generators, lights, drug dogs, permanent structures, and a helicopter hovering nearby. I often take day trips to Nogales, Mexico, on one of the many inexpensive shuttle vans that run round trips from South Tucson, a small Hispanic city completely surrounded by municipal Tucson. Returning one late afternoon, our van was routinely stopped. When the fatigue-clad agent opened the side door he was clearly surprised at my Caucasian face and my perfect driver’s license. “Thank you, sir!” he said reverentially. He then checked the papers of everyone else on board, which took a while — since none had a simple license, nor a white face.

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