Turning Racism Into Education

Turning Racism Into Education

(Photo: banspy)

It’s been over a year since the introduction of Senate Bill 1070, or SB1070, into the Arizona Legislature, and the law is still very much in effect even though it seems to have disappeared from the public eye. Although the public isn’t making as much commotion as it once was about this law, it’s still having a huge impact in the state of Arizona, and on attitudes towards immigration in the country as a whole. In a recent poll, it was discovered that 51 percent of Americans who knew about SB1070 were in favor of the bill. The United States Department of Justice (DOJ) filed an injunction to block certain sections of the bill, and, to date, Arizona has been trying to reverse that injunction, although it has been unsuccessful thus far.

Flagstaff, Arizona, is considered to be one of the more liberal cities in the state, but that doesn’t mean that it’s any less affected by the SB1070 law. While Flagstaff’s elected leaders passed a proclamation indicating their disapproval of SB1070, that action doesn’t change the police department’s obligation to enforce its requirements.

In a statement, Flagstaff Police Lt. Ken Koch said, “We at the Flagstaff Police Department will enforce its directives with compassion and impartiality, as we strive for with all Arizona law enforcement.”

Whether or not this compassion and impartiality is being used in all areas of the state remains to be seen, however.

Northern Arizona University student Roslyn Rodriguez*, who has a Hispanic background, recently had a run-in with law enforcement in Yuma that left her “scared and confused,” as she was pulled over after the car in front of her was busted for carrying drugs.

“I was detained for eight hours and I wasn’t allowed to have my phone or my keys or anything with me,” she said.

Rodriguez understood that pulling over nearby cars is protocol during drug busts, but was frustrated with the way she was treated.

“I wasn’t given food or water, and different people kept asking me the same questions over and over. I felt like I was being harassed.”

What upset Rodriguez the most was that she wasn’t allowed to call anyone and say she was being detained. She feared both her parents and her boyfriend would be worried about her, as she was driving home from her boyfriend’s in San Diego and had promised to call when she made it home safely. When she was finally released after eight hours of questioning, she discovered that the officers had run her name in the criminal records database and torn her entire car apart.

“My gas tank was emptied and not replaced; all my food was thrown away; and when I asked if I could get a copy of the report I was told that there was no paperwork, which scares me, because it’s like there’s no record of it ever happening,” Rodriguez said.

Coming from Austin, Texas, to Arizona, Resas said she’s never faced so much racism.

“Not in Flagstaff so much, but the attitude is different in the rest of Arizona. I’m eyeballed more and always searched thoroughly at border checkpoints.”

Rodriguez thinks the problem lies in people’s lack of understanding, fed by SB1070.

“I feel like people are ignorant about the immigration situation and taking it out on anybody they think fits the description they’ve been fed about illegal immigrants,” she said.

Joe Gutierrez, principal of Flagstaff’s Killip Elementary School, is focused on educating his students about SB1070. Since the introduction of the bill, Gutierrez says that Killip faculty’s level of awareness has been raised.

“Educating [himself and the teachers] about SB1070 and immigration” has become more of a priority for the principal and his school.

“We are working with various community agencies to find out what the needs of our families are to ensure that students and families feel safe,” Gutierrez said.

Killip takes pride in their vision of “educating all children, one student at a time,” and understands that the school has a high number of immigrant students and works to promote a community sense of safety for not only its students, but also for their families.

Said Gutierrez, “We realize that immigrant families face different issues, and we try to make sure that they have an aligned relationship with a community agency who can help support them.”

Gutierrez and Killip’s approach to this important issue is an inspiring one, and one that helps add to Flagstaff’s image as different from the rest of Arizona when it comes to immigration.

Gutierrez echoed Koch’s sentiments about following the letter of the law, saying:

“The approach of the leadership in Flagstaff is very different than that of Maricopa County. Our leaders have made it clear that they will follow the law as it is written. This is different than Maricopa County, where I think the message is there that they will go out and seek illegal immigrants for deportation.”

Koch also noted that while some portions of SB1070 have been enacted as law, the majority of the bill remains in legal review. As the bill continues to be looked over and changed, Koch maintains that, “the Flagstaff Police Department has and will continue to faithfully and impartially enforce the laws of the state of Arizona.”

It remains to be seen whether the rest of the state will follow Flagstaff’s focus on impartiality. That would help many people with Hispanic backgrounds, such as Rodriguez, breathe a bit easier when traveling around the state. SB1070 continues to be an experiment in anti-immigrant legislation, spurring copycat laws around the country. Immigration justice activists in Arizona and around the country are encouraging supporters to stay educated with respect to the bill as its implications continue to change. Since Arizona’s introduction of SB1070, legislators in Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, Michigan, Minnesota and South Carolina have all proposed similar legislation. As Arizona continues to set an example for anti-immigration policy, Gutierrez tries to set an opposite example in his school, promoting “communication and relationships” foremost in order to keep sensitivity to this issue a priority.

Education is the ultimate goal for him and his school, but it is still unclear whether the same will prove true for citizens of the surrounding cities and states, as current immigration policy and industry-influenced bills like SB1070 are roundly criticized for being, among other things, a license for racism and a tool for xenophobic social and political agendas. SB1070 is being used in some parts of Arizona as a pretext for discrimination and the demonization of a minority group. Gutierrez uses it as a means to teach his community about civil rights and inclusion. His work highlights a view that is widely held among critics of SB1070: that when we allow anyone’s rights to be trampled, invariably others’ – like Robin Rodriguez’s – are, too.

*Name has been changed to protect the individual.