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Arizona’s Immigrants and Unions Organize Against “Show Me Your Papers” Law

While opponents of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law went back to court last week to try to stop the law from coming into force, some unions and community groups are organizing to mitigate its worst effects.

While opponents of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant law went back to court last week to try to stop the law from coming into force, some unions and community groups are organizing to mitigate its worst effects.

A coalition of civil rights leaders and religious leaders sought a court order July 17 to prevent police from enforcing the now-infamous Senate Bill 1070, which was partially upheld in June in a 5-3 Supreme Court ruling.

The high court ruled that three of the four core provisions of the law were unconstitutional, reaffirming that immigration enforcement falls under the jurisdiction of the federal government. But the justices didn’t totally stop Arizona’s “get it done yourself” approach, and upheld the section of the law which requires state and local law enforcement to investigate the immigration status of anyone they stop, detain, or arrest who they suspect lacks documents.

Civil rights groups and immigrant rights activists are calling the ruling an immediate threat to the civil liberties of immigrants, noting the abuses, prolonged detentions, and the flat-out targeting of Latino communities already underway. A trial began last week alleging systematic racial profiling by Phoenix-area Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has testified that “dark skin…is the look of the Mexican illegal.”

Arizona’s law has spurred copycats in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, and Utah. As important as legal strategies have proven to defeat some provisions of the law, organizers and Latino communities are not waiting for the courts to come to the rescue as Arpaio’s storm troopers make their rounds.


Realizing that the first reaction to the “show me your papers law” was fear and confusion, community organizers in Phoenix developed Comités Para la Defensa del Barrio, or Committees for Defense of the Neighborhood.

The committees have a steward-like structure where leaders, each representing 20-30 families from different neighborhoods, meet weekly to discuss police harassment and prolonged detentions, and receive basic know-your-rights trainings. The organization is sustained through dues of $10 per month per adult.

“We’ve been able to identify particular officers that have a record of harassing folks and racial profiling,” said Salvador Reza, an organizer with the committees. “We’ve launched direct action campaigns and have been successful in getting abusive officers re-assigned to other parts of the city and out of our communities.”

Rallies and marches, publicized via local radio stations and independent media, have been organized at several police stations. Organizers think abusive officers have been removed due to their actions and because police and community leaders don’t want a pattern of profiling to emerge that could undermine the legislation.

The committees also hold a general assembly where hundreds of community members come to level legal questions at lawyers, receive trainings on how to interact with the police if they are stopped, and get educated on the economic and colonial roots of immigration.

“We really try to destroy the myth that any human being is illegal,” Reza said.

Unions like the Food and Commercial Workers Local 99 in Phoenix and Tucson have been spurred by the law to negotiate contract language that requires employers to notify the union at the same time as they notify the member of any immigration-related actions taken against them, giving them time to find legal counsel. In addition the union has also secured a 90-day window for the worker to make sure documents are up to date. (For more on what unions can do to defend members in similar situations, see Immigration Audits: Building A Strong Defense.) And UFCW has been mobilizing members to the neighborhood defense committees’ actions.

“As unionists it’s our work to defend our members,” said Martin Hernandez, an organizer with Local 99, “and by extension that means defending their families and their communities.”

While the committees focus on everyday survival, other unions are looking to change the political landscape. The hotel and casino union UNITE HERE Local 631 is teaming up with the Campaign for Arizona’s Future to register voters and get them to the polls. They deployed a group of about 100 volunteers and hospitality workers in July to conduct a voter registration “raid” at five non-union luxury resorts in the upscale city of Scottsdale, in a tongue-in-cheek parody of Sheriff Arpaio’s raids. They aim to register and mobilize 40,000 new Latino voters by November’s election.

“We have to attack this from all angles,” said Daria Ovide, an organizer with Campaign for Arizona’s Future. “We realize that not all Latinos are eligible to vote, but many come from mixed-status families and this is one of many ways to give those mixed status households a voice in the fight. Our goal is to keep families together.”

Painters Local 86 in Phoenix is taking a longer view. With a membership that is 42 percent white, 50 percent Latino, 5 percent native, and 3 percent Black, the union has focused on educating members, explaining the law and countering the arguments many have already digested.

“We reject this law not just because 50 percent of our members are Latino but also because these type of laws hurt the state’s image and its economy,” said Masavi Perea of Local 86. Hundreds of thousands have left the state’s workforce and pulled kids out of school, and one study estimated that Arizona businesses lost more than $600 million from boycotts and slowed economic activity.

The union puts immigration on the agenda at regular membership meetings, where the law’s negative impact on members is made clear to all.

“It’s tough because the mainstream media is pummeling our members with misinformation,” Perea said. “It’s our work to flip our members who actually believe that SB 1070 is a good thing.”

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