Arizona has become notorious across the United States for its punitive and callous approach to the problem of illegal immigration. The enactment of Senate Bill 1070 (Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act), a law that allows local police to question a person’s immigration status based on “reasonable suspicion” if a person is stopped for another criminal violation, has been decried as an invitation to racial profiling. Latinos, or anyone with brown skin, will be the likely targets of the new law that takes effect next month.
Some national groups and governmental units (including the cities of Minneapolis and St. Paul) have signed on to an economic boycott of Arizona. I was reluctant to attend the American Jewish Press Association (AJPA) conference last week in Scottsdale, having been repulsed by the actions of the Arizona legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer. I knew that extremist groups, neo-Nazis and their ilk, had seized on the SB 1070 controversy to fan the flames of racial hatred.
However, I did attend the June 14-17 AJPA gathering. A workshop panelist said that he too was having second thoughts about going to the conference; but a friend in Arizona reassured him: “It’s a dry hate.”
Amid the rising thermometer mercury, and the political heat being generated over SB 1070, the AJPA conference took place in the air-conditioned comfort of hotel meeting rooms. On June 16, the conferees bussed over to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communications on Arizona State University’s downtown Phoenix campus. After some discussions about journalistic ethics, digital media and increasing ad sales revenue, our attention turned to the vexing immigration issue in an afternoon workshop titled “Jewish Perspectives on Immigration Policy.”
The panelists were Paulina Vazquez Morris, a Jewish candidate for Arizona’s Third District seat in the U.S. House; Bill Straus, ADL regional director; Gideon Aronoff, president and CEO of HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society; and Rabbi John Linder, of Temple Solel in Paradise Valley. Brahm Resnik, a local TV news anchor, moderated the discussion.
Resnik provided an overview of the situation in southern Arizona, sketching a picture of a war between Mexican authorities and drug cartels that was spilling across the border. Phoenix has become the kidnapping capital of the U.S., he said; and law enforcement authorities contend that drug and human traffickers are perpetrating most of these crimes. Although the FBI reported an overall decline in violent crime for 2009 in Phoenix, some observers contend that illegal immigrants are responsible for a disproportionate share of criminal activity.
Of the panelists, only Morris, a Republican from a family that fled Castro’s Cuba, favored SB 1070, which she called “inevitable,” in the absence of a comprehensive federal solution to the problem of undocumented immigrants. She put the blame on this country, which has “encouraged a hugely profitable human trafficking industry… 21st century slavery.”
On the specific issue of SB 1070, Straus cast the new law as a boon to right-wing hate-mongers, who have made common cause with more mainstream conservative politicians. Straus notes that state Sen. Russell Pearce, the author of SB 1070, has been associated with J.T. Ready, a high-profile neo-Nazi involved in militant anti-immigrant activities.
I asked the panelists to comment on a June 14 TV news report about two men wearing camouflage outfits shooting with high-powered rifles at immigrants near the international border at Rio Rico, Ariz. The KGUN9-TV report said that an immigrant crossing the border from Mexico was wounded and treated at a local hospital.
The ADL’s Straus responded that a Republican congressional candidate in New Mexico proposed planting landmines along the border. And, he added, an Arizona radio talk show host suggested setting up a tower one night a week and allowing guests on a TV reality show to take pot shots at immigrants trying to enter the U.S.; the show would be called “Immigration Roulette.”
Clearly the immigration issue in the Southwest is being fueled by a large amount of fear and manipulated by opportunistic politicians. Apart from the political jawing, vulnerable Latinos seeking to enter this country to find work are often robbed, beaten, raped and killed on their trek through the desert.
Dozens of Jewish groups have expressed their opposition to SB 1070; but apparently this has not been the case generally among Arizona’s congregations. Rabbi Linder, who has spoken out against the new law, framed the issue as one ofÂ pikuach nefesh, the overriding Jewish value to save life. He said there is a need to secure the border “by having a humane way for people to come in…. To create something where they are not desperate to risk their life [in coming to America].”
In April, following the passage of SB 1070, Linder told the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix: “A bill that narrowly focuses on law enforcement is shortsighted. For people of faith and good will, this law is an insult to the biblical words read from the Torah the very week Gov. Brewer signed [the bill] into law: ‘When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as you love yourself…’”
Linder added, “Imagine how differently immigration reform would look if we began with this as our foundation.”
Gideon Aronoff suggested that comprehensive federal legislation, such as that proposed by Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., is needed to provide effective enforcement along the border, to ensure that workplaces comply with immigration laws and to regulate “future flows of legal immigration.”
“The idea that you can scare 12 million people to leave this country is absurd,” said Aronoff, in a reference to Arizona’s round-’em-up approach. “That would require the creation of a police state.”
In a meeting on the first evening of the AJPA conference, the attendees heard about the Latino Jewish community in Phoenix — the fifth largest city in the U.S. Perhaps several hundred Latino Jews live among the 83,000 Jews in Greater Phoenix, according to Carlos Galindo-Elvira, a Latino Jew who is vice president of philanthropic and community relations for Valle del Sol, a social services agency.
A fascinating discussion of Latino converts to Judaism, Jews from Mexico and “crypto Jews” (ancestors of the Jews expelled from Spain in 1492, who have maintained Jewish practices in secret over many generations) led to a concept that I had never entertained: undocumented Jewish Latinos.
Indeed, some members of Avdey Torah Jayah, a “Hispanic Sephardic” congregation in Chandler, Ariz., have neither U.S. citizenship nor resident alien status. In the aftermath of SB 1070’s passage, they fear attending Shabbat services. Many of these undocumented Jews are staying away from shul, for fear that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio will be waiting for them. The self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” has attracted press attention for his aggressive treatment of undocumented immigrants, including a stunt in February 2009, which involved marching shackled immigrants through the streets of Phoenix, as a promotion for his Fox TV reality show.
Deborah Sussman Susser, my colleague at the Jewish News of Greater Phoenix, called out the Jewish community, and greater community, in Phoenix about Arpaio’s humiliation of his jail inmates. In an editorial that won one of the 2009 Rockower awards, Sussman Susser wrote: “The question is, where is the widespread outrage in the Phoenix community? … The Jewish community in particular should be participating in the charge against Arpaio — and yet, with some notable exceptions, we are mostly silent. One has to wonder why.
“Is it because the people being humiliated were inmates? No excuse. Not only are they protected by the U.S. Constitution: Their status as prisoners in no way absolves us of the obligation to accord themÂ kavod haberiyot, or human dignity — ‘the most dear and beloved quality in all of Judaism,’ according to the medieval commentator Meiri.”
Returning to the plight of undocumented, and fully legal, shomer Shabbos Latinos,Â Rabbi Yosef Garcia of Congregation Avdey Torah Jayah told the Phoenix Jewish newspaper that SB 1070 “will simply isolate the Hispanic population from the rest of the population. I’m all for immigration reform, but I want it done across the board. I do not want a specific group targeted, whether they’re Hispanics, Arabs, Asians or Russians. Reform should be directed at all immigrants.”
Opinions are mixed about the wisdom of boycotting Arizona; but I’m glad that I attended the AJPA conference in Scottsdale and increased my knowledge of the contentious immigration issue as it is playing out along the U.S.-Mexico border. And I’ll admit to harboring some envy for my Jewish press colleagues in Arizona, who have so much to write about. Arizona, which has become something of a reality show for America’s dystopic future, is the Promised Land for journalists.
Finally, Jewish World readers, who are mainly of the first and second generations of their families born in America, should haveÂ rachmones, compassion, for the current generation of immigrants, many of whom have journeyed to America in the hope of finding work and providing for their families, only to face suspicion or find themselves locked up in Sheriff Joe’s immigration jail.
— Mordecai Specktor / email@example.com
(American Jewish World, 6.25.10)