Arizona's controversial SB1070 immigration law is best understood through the lives of those supporting and opposing the law, which is what filmmakers Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini vividly depict in their documentary, The State of Arizona, recently shown on PBS.
The film covers the familiar yet powerful stories of the state’s Latino immigrants, who were already subjected to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s sweeps before passage of the controversial law. One husband and father in the film is swept up and spends months in jail; he is later released while he awaits deportation proceedings, while others are not that lucky.
Latino families, who settled in Arizona when the economy was flush with jobs and there was work to be done, continuously express surprise at the movement against them. One man says he has never taken a penny in government money in the years he has been in the state. As families are trying to absorb the changes that have turned their lives upside down, the film shows how they are caught in an immigration system designed without the capacity to manage the demands of a modern economy and the fluctuations in our need for labor.
Yet the film deftly shows the cultural and generational gap between Latinos and the older, largely non-Latino white population against the backdrop of rising crime on the border due to the drug trade and the worsening economic climate. One Arizona resident refers to “illegals” as an “invasion,” others lament the increasing numbers of people in their towns and facilities.
These residents express concern over the relentless demographic shift in their state; ranchers on the border are nostalgic for the days when migration was solely for laborers and family rather than potential members of the notorious Mexican cartels.
Out of this environment, the documentary chronicles the outsized role of state Senator Russell Pearce, the architect of SB1070, as well as Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Both men, as well as their supporters, view their crusade as a righteous one, explaining they are doing what the federal government won’t do.
Arpaio’s sweeps and the resulting SB1070 law leads to countless stops for the state’s residents who might even look Latino; the documentary shows a native American woman who was stopped. The law takes its toll on businesses; an Asian-American grocer calls the legislation “stupid,” saying he’s lost 30 to 40 percent of his profit. Yet Arizona’s undocumented population goes down by 200,000 in a few years - which was the law’s main intent.
For many Latino families, leaving is not an option, leading to increased political mobilization. State Senator Russell Pearce met with a political downfall that was unprecedented in Arizona history – he was recalled from office. Unlike the failed tenure of Pearce, Sheriff Arpaio has proven immune to attempts by his detractors to remove him from power.
While the Supreme Court struck many of SB1070’s provisions, the “show me your papers” is still in effect. Yet the documentary ends reminding viewers that following evolution of SB1070, Latinos mobilized in the voting booth - 71 percent voted for President Obama, putting immigration reform on the forefront of legislative issues.
Yet all politics is local. After SB1070 states like Alabama and Georgia enacted restrictive immigration laws, while other states managed harsh economic times without the likes of SB1070. Research has shown that large immigrant communities mixed into a cocktail of economic decline and personal gain is not a sufficient prerequisite to understanding whether or not we will see a continuation of laws like SB1070.
In their 2012 investigation of state and local immigration laws, Dr. Karthick Ramakrishnan and Dr. Pratheepan Gulasekaram found that the predictability in laws such as SB1070 could not be reliably found in economics or demographics, but in political partisanship. Their study found that restrictive ordinances were 93 percent more likely to pass in Republican counties than in Democratic run counties and they estimate that there is a 47 percent difference between Republican-heavy states and Democrat-heavy states.
Possible legislation out of Congress which includes a solution to the nation’s approximately 11 million undocumented immigrants might make laws like SB1070 a thing of the past. Absent that, the contentious state of Arizona is not likely to change without greater shifts in the political affiliation of its leaders or a transformation in how the Republican Party views the economic and civic contribution of the nation’s immigrants, in particular those without papers.