Que Lástima, Arizona

Speaker's Corner: The state's new immigration law puts more at risk than tourism dollars and tacos. Adam Karlin reports from the Sonoran Desert.

05.19.10 | 8:50 AM ET


In a Phoenix taco shop, a John Goodman-Tony Soprano hybrid, built for carrying Obama=Hitler signs at Tea Parties, grabbed the arm of a passing waiter who could have been plucked off a Mayan bas-relief.

“Hey Miguel.”


“This new law. Any cops f**k with you? They mess with you and yours, I swear to God I might sue someone.”

Miguel smiled and nodded, and the fat man went off on the current hot topic: Arizona’s new immigration law. With the focus-grouped title of Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070), the law allows police, during “lawful contact” (i.e. arrests, traffic stops, etc.), to detain someone if “reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the [US].” American citizens who don’t report illegal immigrants to the authorities will be breaking the law as well.

I’ve yet to meet anyone in Arizona—I’m here researching a guidebook—who doesn’t have some take on the issue, although as my experience in the taco shop proves, it’s hard to stereotype people based on appearance. In another taco shop, a sweet Mexican-born lady who both cooked and served my food smiled and told me about how she came to America, built her own business, raised a family. A story as American as apple pie. Or tacos.

I asked her about the new law, figuring she’d be the type to be against it. She exclaimed, “Oh no my dear, ees no problem. They stop me? I have driver license. I show, OK, no problem?”

I’m an outsider here, and outsiders have dug a big communication gap on this issue. The most passionate voice I’ve heard for the law was a North Carolinian helicopter pilot who thinks Democrats are engaged in a plot to wash America away in a tide of minority voters. The loudest voice against it was a Canadian PhD candidate who was presenting a paper at the University of Arizona on DuBois’ concept of double consciousness and identity in border spaces. The middle ground between these two poles seems, to say the least, small.

In the meantime, real people travel through the MexiAmerican median that is Southern Arizona. Mexicans want a better life and can’t wait for Congress to fix our broken immigration system. Americans—white, brown and black—are scared of men with AK-47s sometimes literally sneaking across their backyards.

Twenty-four million Mexicans legally cross into Arizona every year to spend money. Many are now thinking twice about doing so, which is going to be a hell of a blow to Arizona’s tourism revenue—1 in 10 travelers here is Mexican. One of the most touristed states in the nation now faces one of the biggest tourism boycotts of any individual state. 

And the law may discourage more than the simple act of movement. All those boycotts speak to something else: a blow to the blended identity that makes Arizona so interesting. Besides her considerable natural beauty, Arizona’s attraction lies in the way she merges Sonora, Mexico and the American Southwest like she blends purple and red and orange and pink and indigo into impossibly beautiful sunsets. If SB 1070 widens divisions between Arizona’s Anglos and Latinos, it will be harming a big source of the state’s appeal.

La Frontera encompasses two overlapping universes and the creative tension of a human Venn diagram. Take Ajo, Arizona, 40 miles from Sonyata, Mexico. Amid its low-slung homes with air-con boxes busting out the side and the bulb-y round cupolas of the smooth white Catholic mission is a Moorish-Mediterranean-Mexican thread you could tug on and follow to the red dirt towns of nearby Sonora. Those polished white-tile presidios come from across the ocean to the scrubbed out sunshine and low-slung, red roofs of Andalucia, themselves just a hop north of the olive groves (which resemble palo verde copses) and breezy riads of Morocco. Which is speckled with its bulb-y white cupola-ed mosques and trilling ouds which, hey, sound quite-near-almost-proximate to the flamenco guitar that just came out of the local radio station back in Ajo.

The mix is heady and fascinating, and the tragic thing is people of all political stripes here recognize that. I talked with ranchers who supported the law who were hardly bigots. They had fed and given water to immigrants crossing on foot. Many had raised their children to be bilingual. But they feared for their safety. Like a lot of potentially bad legislation, SB 1070 was founded in fear, a panic that followed the murder of rancher Robert Krentz near the border. “Really, it’s not the workers we’re worried about,” one rancher said. “It’s the drug guys.” I had the sense he really meant it, and that if it weren’t for the violence that recently accompanied the Mexican drug trade, the law wouldn’t have popped on his radar.

Or would it have? With bans on ethnic studies classes and teachers with strong accents (are Mississippi teachers included?), however genuine and nice those ranchers were, it’s hard not to feel as though the legislators of Arizona are giving the finger to anyone who doesn’t fit into the muzak sprawl that is the not-seamy-but-boring underbelly of Arizona. The tract housing that spills over Paradise Valley; the obscene golf courses fuzzed green by an increasingly scarce water table; the architects behind the faux-dobe shopping malls that, but for their pseudo-Southwest façade, could be from Houston or Seattle or Dayton or anywhere.

I can’t analyze the legislation as an immigration or security expert, but I can see it from the vantage point of the traveler. And speaking as a traveler, I’m worried that the general mindset of Arizona’s leaders, as exemplified by the above laws, favors bland homogeneity over diversity.

Everywhere I go in Arizona, I see the beauty that occurs when the best of two cultures happily interbreed. If this law increases community tensions between brown and white, it will ultimately work against the gourmet food stalls where Anglo artists paint clever variants on Day of the Dead demigods while serving jazzed up versions of green chile; the radio stations that juke between norteño music and Cowpunk sets; burlesque shows that balance Victorian corsets with chola-inspired graffiti; the sense of opportunity that draws the best and brightest and hardest-working from other countries (thanks, Mexico) and weaves them into our national tapestry.

Que lástima. Beware this law, Arizona. I don’t support a tourism boycott—it’s too simple a punishment for people with complex motivations—but will whatever safety is gained by the law (if any safety is gained) be worth losing all of the above? Because there’s a lot more at risk than tourism dollars and tacos.

Adam Karlin is a freelance writer based in ... well, wherever, who writes on ... well, whatever. But mainly travel, the world, history, culture and whatever else catches his fancy.

11 Comments for Que Lástima, Arizona

Eva Holland 05.19.10 | 11:45 AM ET

Thanks for this, Adam. I really liked your point about the cultural fusion that’s at risk here.

As a potential foreign tourist to Arizona, my question in all this has been: How on earth do I prove that I’m not an illegal immigrant? Unofficially, I realize the law isn’t aimed at blonde Canadian tourists - but officially, it’s not racially motivated, right? So let’s say I go to Arizona and for whatever reason I get stopped and asked whether I’m an illegal immigrant. I show my ID - but all it proves is that I’m a foreign national without a green card. And, from what I’ve read about the law, suspicion that I’m an illegal immigrant + my inability to produce documentation to the contrary = Arizona having the right to jail me immediately. There is no “I’m just a tourist” ID card. I understand how Americans can prove they have the right to live in Arizona (though frankly, I would never tolerate being expected to carry ID at all times in my own home), but I don’t know how the rest of us are supposed to prove that although we’re foreign, we plan on going home again.

Adam 05.19.10 | 12:13 PM ET

Hey Eva,

So, I believe if you were in the US on a legal tourism visa and weren’t doing anything unlawful (which you’ve technically got to be suspected of for police to instigate ‘contact’), you wouldn’t be jailed. Of course, this means you’d need to carry your passport all the time. But let’s face it—as a blonde Canadian,  I think its fair to say there is a much reduced chance the police are going to suspect the legality of your stay in the US. Yes, the law explicitly comes out against racial profiling, but it was written in response to activity from South of the Border.

And yes, having to answer to the law when you’re not breaking it is intrusive and hardly an example of the limited govt Americans like myself like to think we’re all about.

Grizzly Bear Mom 05.19.10 | 12:19 PM ET

I believe Arizona’s problem is with lawbreakers and the cost of illegal immigrants.  To conclude that their decisions are based on homogeneity and not economics is pretty small minded.  I don’t think the few dollars tourists spend in Arizona outweigh the costs of illegals, or give them little right to impose their views on Arizona.  I certainly don’t listen to how tourists tell me to run my state and wouldn’t vote for representatives that did.

Eva Holland 05.19.10 | 12:21 PM ET

Yeah, I figured in practice the law isn’t likely to affect people like me. Still, it’s interesting to ponder how I’d prove my legality if it came down to it - Canadians who cross the border by land don’t get their passports stamped, and of course we don’t need visas in any formalized sense, so there’s nothing to prove when we entered the United States or when we’re supposed to leave. I’m not sure what the Mexican border regulations are (stricter, I’m guessing?) but absent a dated passport stamp, tourists have no means of proving they’re not illegal immigrants.

nancy 05.19.10 | 12:21 PM ET

well i think that thhis new law is a bad idea and president Obama i supposed to be ont he role with the Reform.

Adam 05.19.10 | 12:30 PM ET

@Grizzly Bear Mom—Like I said in the story, I met ranchers who laid out, clearly and convincingly, their security concerns re: the border. But I don’t see how legislation against ethnic studies classes and teachers with strong accents has anything to do with security or economic issues. As for paying attention to tourists, I happily cop to being one—but I also happily to cop to bringing fresh eyes and my own vote, in the form of where I choose to spend my money (which for now continues to be AZ), to the immigration discussion.

Jennifer 05.19.10 | 2:49 PM ET

Do legal immigrants bring less to the table when it comes to “ethnic fusion” than illegal ones?????  The south is not in any danger, now or in the future, of losing it’s mexican influence!  Please!!

As far as the “teachers with strong accents” issue goes, I hardly see how comparing a teacher with a strong southern accent in Mississippi who probably teaches students with the same accent is the same as a teacher with a heavy spanish accent teaching children without one.  Why should children, in their own country, have to stuggle to understand what their teacher is saying to them?  It’s ludicrous!  It’s a big enough pain to have to struggle in college to understand a professor with an accent, young children shouldn’t have to deal with that too! This is what the law is trying address - is it a perfect law, no, but there is rationality behind it which many choose not to see!

Also, since this is a decidedly south of the border issue there is no possible way for it to ever be separated from race issues in every way.  So…people will always make it a race issue if they can and others will shy away from challeging that b/c it isn’t currently PC to do so.

There is nothing wrong with requiring people to show that they are legally in a place!  Seems pretty d@#m logical to me!  It seems like a very simple way to START to addressing the problem - a problem, after all, that can be blamed squrely on people who insist on breaking the law.  If legal immigrants don’t like this idea then maybe they need to take their frustrations to those that continue to break the law!!!!!  The US also needs to start pressuring the Mexican “governement” to start patrolling the border .  Why should this burden fall only on US?

And for people who don’t think they should have to carry id with them all of the time to prove that they are citizens - are you really that lazy?  Most people carry either a driver’s license with them everywhere or, at the very least, a similar id card for those that do not drive.  Would a citizenship card be any different.? What, what, what, is wrong with asking people to provide proof of citizenship??  Please, can I get a straight answer on this!  Frankly, I do not think the racial profiling excuse holds much water, for the reasons I stated above.  The only people who are afraid of this law are illegals, legals with illegal relatives or friends and liberals who probably aren’t sure why,  just that that’s what they are supposed to think as a good little lemming, liberal.  This “peace, love, hope, change thing” sounds great but that’s about all!!  This mentality is causing all of the immigration problems that we are currently struggling to deal with. Should we just open the borders?  No!? Well, then something has to be done!!

Finally - let’s be honest, the number of Mexican tourist dollars going into Arizona is negligable compared with the amount of money spent on illegal immigrants and all that they entail.  How does one go about separating Mexican tourist dollars from money spent by legal and illegal immigrants anyway?  Far more money is shipped “home” by illegals and legals alike than will ever be spent in the state by mexican tourists!

TambourineMan 05.20.10 | 2:41 AM ET

Si, que lastima, Arizona.
Lakers - 2
Suns - 0

“Many are now thinking twice about doing so, which is going to be a hell of a blow to Arizonaís tourism revenueó1 in 10 travelers here is Mexican. One of the most touristed states in the nation now faces one of the biggest tourism boycotts of any individual state. “

Ha. A bit dramatic, sir. Go check out some of the wackos commenting on Benning’s original blog about all this. Mexican tourists? The San Francisco Board of Sups? Tea Party nuts will make up for it by summer vacationing in hell-fire Phoenix just to prove their dumb point. AZ Tourism is loving this.

Grizzly Bear Mom 05.21.10 | 11:20 AM ET

I read the bill.  It allows police officers with probably cause (stopping red light runners, etc.) to check IDs, and prohibits hiring illegals.  You can read the bill here: http://www.azleg.gov/FormatDocument.asp?inDoc=/legtext/49leg/2r/bills/sb1070h.htm.  It prohibits them from targeting anyone.

According to the Wall Street journal article you cite, the Arizona Department of Education requires teachers with accents to improve their English.  Donít we expect our children to speak English well? Why have negative examples of pronunciation in the classroom and hold adults paid to educate children to a different standard?  You can see the logic of not retaining someone who taught them 2 + 2 is 5.  If our school systems donít require children to learn the language of the nation, they are not serving the purpose for which they are intended, canít justify receiving our taxes, and sentence the children to low employment levels. 

Regarding ethnic studies, you quote an L.A. Times article.  I can’t do any original research on a news article.  Iíve read differently but canít remember where.

By the way I am a Libertarian, daughter of parents who learned English in kindergarten, and have studied Spanish and German for years.

Mad Jayhawk 06.01.10 | 1:40 AM ET

If the police working the streets around Obama’s Chicago house can ask everyone they see for ID I do not see why the police in AZ can’t ask those they legitimately stop for ID.  The police in Chicago can protect the President and his family but the police in Arizona can’t protect its citizens?

If those communities like LA, SF, Austin, Boulder and the like in this country oppose Arizona’s law so much, let them send buses to Phoenix a couple of times a month to pick up a load or two of illegals that have been arrested.  Sheriff Joe will probably be happy to clear out the jail and put the illegals on the bus to go back to wherever the bus came from so the folks in that community can deal with them.  Then maybe Arizona can pass on the titles of being the Stolen Car Capital of the US, the Home Invasion Capital of the US, etc. on to these fine, sensitive communities.  I am sure these communities will welcome the illegals with open arms.

Vijay Rajendran 07.13.10 | 3:12 PM ET

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