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It was just three years ago. I was sitting in my office, only half-enjoying a visit from a former student – each of us was tense, awaiting Arizona Governor Jan Brewer’s announcement regarding SB1070. Surely she would do the humane and right thing? Surely she would refuse to sign an insidious and un-American piece of legislation that would criminalize undocumented immigrants and would require state and city police officers to check the immigration status of a detained, stopped or arrested individual, if they reasonably suspect he or she could be an undocumented immigrant. Surely a Governor of these United States in 21st Century America would veto any legislation that had the potential to institutionalize racial profiling?

In an instant, Governor Brewer showed us that the lessons of history do not apply to her. Swiftly and proudly, she signed an inhumane bill into law, and the world finally paid attention to an Arizona that, measure by measure, would continue to make the American life unlivable for immigrants.

What I found most harrowing then, with my personal baggage as an immigrant from Northern Ireland living in Arizona, was the prospect of immigrants being required to have their immigration papers on their person at all times. Shades of my home country in the 1980s, during The Troubles, when it was not uncommon for me to hand over my driver’s license for inspection by a member of the British Army or an RUC officer at random road closures and checkpoints.

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I well recall a snowy afternoon at the top of the Ligoniel Road in Belfast. A student teacher, not yet twenty-one and heading home for Christmas, I was moving out of the Halls of Residence at Stranmillis College. My little Datsun weighed down with library books and lecture notes, clothes and toiletries, boxes of vinyl records and cassette tapes, a collection of concert posters wrapped in rubber bands, my prized hi-fi, and a violin, I somehow looked less like a university student and more, perhaps, like an IRA terrorist. Even though I had my license and could answer politely and truthfully, the young soldiers’ questions about where I had been and where I was going, still I had to step aside in the slush and the snow, watching and waiting as they rifled through the contents of my car, looking under the seats and in the trunk, emptying out my make-up bag, disturbing the folders of college papers. All in the name of security I know, but to this day I question the randomness of it. I remember raging inside – seething – that I was being subjected to such treatment in my own country. My. Own. Country. I said nothing. Of course, I said nothing, and I was soon sent on my way, but I never forgot it or the way it made me wonder about what it was about me on that particular day, that would cause British soldiers with guns to interrogate me and have me step out of my vehicle and search its contents? Did I fit some profile? Did I look like a terrorist? What was the ‘reasonable suspicion?”

Fast forward. A victory – in 2012, the United States Supreme Court threw out some sections of SB1070 including the part that required immigrants like me to carry their papers. However, the court upheld the most controversial requirement that police officers question the immigration status of those they suspect of being in the country illegally. Governor Brewer and her supporters have indicated that law enforcement officers receive training so there is no racial profiling. As an immigrant and as an educator, I marvel at any curriculum that will guarantee such results for those officers who might just harbor anti-immigrant feelings. In May 2013, a federal judge ruled that, indeed, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who fancies himself as the toughest sheriff in America, and his deputies “engage regularly in unconstitutional racial profiling against Latinos. The judge ordered the department to immediately stop targeting Latinos based on their race.” Would that the judge could peer into Mr. Arpaio’s heart before any ruling.

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When my favorite poet, Seamus Heaney, delivered his acceptance speech for the Nobel Prize in 1995, he shared a heart-stopping moment from the history of my anguished and wounded Northern Ireland. In the story he related, lies a powerful lesson about humanity – one that would serve well Joe Arpaio,  President Obama, Governor Brewer, and anyone who aspires to the ideals of America, to the future we desire for our children and ourselves:

“One of the most harrowing moments in the whole history of the harrowing of the heart in Northern Ireland came when a minibus full of workers being driven home one January evening in 1976 was held up by armed and masked men and the occupants of the van ordered at gunpoint to line up at the side of the road. Then one of the masked executioners said to them, “Any Catholics among you, step out here”. As it happened, this particular group, with one exception, were all Protestants, so the presumption must have been that the masked men were Protestant paramilitaries about to carry out a tit-for-tat sectarian killing of the Catholic as the odd man out, the one who would have been presumed to be in sympathy with the IRA and all its actions. It was a terrible moment for him, caught between dread and witness, but he did make a motion to step forward. Then, the story goes, in that split second of decision, and in the relative cover of the winter evening darkness, he felt the hand of the Protestant worker next to him take his hand and squeeze it in a signal that said no, don’t move, we’ll not betray you, nobody need know what faith or party you belong to. All in vain, however, for the man stepped out of the line; but instead of finding a gun at his temple, he was thrown backward and away as the gunmen opened fire on those remaining in the line, for these were not Protestant terrorists, but members, presumably, of the Provisional IRA . . . The birth of the future we desire is surely in the contraction which that terrified Catholic felt on the roadside when another hand gripped his hand, not in the gunfire that followed, so absolute and so desolate, if also so much a part of the music of what happens.”

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We all get it. We understand that illegal immigration is a problem of monumental proportion for these United States, but SB 1070 is not the answer. It is not the answer for those immigrant children who are in Arizona because their parents brought them here in search of the dream of America that also drew me to these shores. Children who, hands on their hearts, pledge faithfully allegiance to the United States flag every day in elementary school. Children who have committed no crime but who are criminalized nonetheless because they don’t have papers. And, they don’t have papers because there is no legal pathway to citizenship for them. Living in the shadows, they can only wait and hope that humanity will out.

Without a doubt, SB1070 has awakened in many of us the spirit that defines the transcendent and universal struggle for humanity. But not enough of us.

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As in other deeply wounded places, I detect a hardening of the heart in Arizona. It dismays me to note that while our elected officials grapple with comprehensive immigration reform and all that it entails, we continue to rip families apart with over 1,000 daily deportations nationally. According to presente.org, “over 1,500,000 people have been deported since January 2009. At this rate, President Obama will have deported more people in six years than all people deported before 1997.” How many of these are mothers and fathers now separated from their children? How “American” is it to deny a place at the table to any needy child?

I recall a college assignment from years ago, requiring us to draw comparisons between South Africa and Northern Ireland. Trying to confront the political impasse and to overcome the sectarianism that had defined us for too long, it made sense to learn from South Africa’s shameful past. But I never thought I would be compelled to revisit the topic as an immigrant in Arizona in the 21st century. Never. SB1070 has taken me back to times I thought were behind us forever.

Times such as those when an apartheid government condoned the “banning of people.” Between 1948 and 1991, such a government severely restricted the movement of black South Africans and their political activities. The apartheid government’s mantra was simple:

  • Ban them.
  • Keep silent their opposition to apartheid.
  • Harass them at the slightest provocation.

They took it one step further by banning political opponents and using indefinite detention, imprisonment, torture, and political assassination. I could digress here and go back to the enactment of Internment Law in my Northern Ireland, but that is another sad note for another day. And finally, in South Africa, banning led to banishment, removing people from their homes and families, stripping them of their citizenship, and deporting them to remote areas of the country, the ill-named “homelands,” often without basic living necessities and always indefinitely.

For me, SB1070 is eerily reminiscent of early apartheid laws in South Africa, particularly the “pass laws” that were put in place to segregate the population and to severely restrict the movement of South African blacks. It required all African males over the age of 16 to carry a “reference book” (formerly a ‘passbook’), documentation of personal information and employment history. Following its enactment, many Africans were then compelled to violate the pass laws in order to find work to support their families. Of course, this led to harassment, fines, and arrests. You get the picture. And, it is deeply troubling, isn’t it? So much so that people will rise up against it, right?

Invariably some people rise up, as they have been doing for the past three years in Arizona. In South Africa, there was the early Defiance Campaign, the massive women’s protest in Pretoria (1956), and then the 1960 massacre of 69 protestors at a ‘pass burning’ at the police station in Sharpeville. But, we need more people. More people to rise up. Rise. Up. Yesterday’s three year anniversary of SB 1070 brought out in Phoenix, only a small group of protestors, on a march organized by the unflagging, grassroots movement, Puente, Arizona. Only fifty people, according to the Associated Press, marched in opposition to the landmark SB 1070. Why? Where’s the rage?

As I see it, SB1070 needs to sit on a shelf along with the pass laws of Apartheid, the Internment Act Law in Northern Ireland, and that book of laws in Nazi Germany prior to World War II that required Jews to carry papers and citizens to prove they weren’t Jewish.

Commenting on SB1070 three years ago, Archbishop Desmond Tutu raised the specter of apartheid, where black Africans could be jailed for being in their own country without their papers, degraded and deemed less worthy because of the color of their skin,

Abominations such as Apartheid do not start with an entire population suddenly becoming inhumane. They start here… They start with stripping people of rights and dignity – such as the right to be presumed innocent until proven guilty. Not because it is right, but because you can.

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