July 14, 2010

Taking It Home: 9500 Liberty

Has anyone in Arizona talked to these people? 

You may have heard about a controversial ordinance that was recently passed which requires police officers to question any individual they have probable cause to suspect is an undocumented immigrant. You may have heard about the ensuing protests and planned boycotts, and the election year hand-wringing by the involved politicians, and the fiery "man on the street" rhetoric about God and country. 

But this isn't Arizona's Support our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (SB 1070) of 2010. It's a county ordinance in Virginia from 2007. The same kind of law elicited the same kind of reactions, but without the same level of attention - until now. Indeed, there exists a unique opportunity to see a glimpse of the future by simply taking a look at the past in the fascinating new documentary 9500 Liberty, directed by Asian-Americans (and Coffee Party founders) Annabel Park and Eric Byler. The film is coincidentally rolling into theaters across the country this month, including in Arizona on July 27 - only two days before SB 1070 goes into effect.

If you've been paying attention to the Arizona dilemma (and if you're an American of any color you should be, since this will affect everyone), you owe it to yourself to watch this engrossing film and then spend some focused time deliberating and discussing it. What 9500 Liberty confirms, not surprisingly, is that there are no easy answers to the problem of illegal immigration. Moreover, it underscores how much of this debate - on both sides - is driven not by rational logic, but by emotional panic.

It becomes apparent while watching 9500 Liberty that the Arizona bill will be a trumpeted success in some aspects and a humiliating failure in others. The trick will be learning how to navigate between the rhetoric and the reality while maintaining a big picture perspective on the future of the United States. At the end of the day, and as it has for every controversial social change this country has experienced, this question remains begging: What will adapt first - laws or people? The American Constitution or the constitution of America?

Here's my best effort at briefly summarizing what happened in Prince William County, VA in 2007-08: As the Latino population increased (from 4% to 20%) during the decade prior, the predominantly white members of the community became increasingly concerned and frustrated, none more so than a controversial blogger named Eric Letiecq. He led a grass-roots campaign (Help Save Manassas) and partnered with national organizations and the county board of supervisors to create a resolution that would target (in practice, if not in theory) the illegal immigrants living among them. Not surprisingly, the Latino population - many of whom were U.S. citizens, as is the case in Arizona - erupted in protest over what they felt was racial profiling and discriminatory justice. Their unofficial spokesman was Gaudencio Fernandez, who erected a series of massive and increasingly volatile signs at his property on 9500 Liberty Street. Numerous public board meetings lasted into the early mornings, and many included deeply emotional testimonies from people in the community of all ages and nationalities. After hearing from their constituents, the board of supervisors (6 Republican, 2 Democrat) voted unanimously to adopt the resolution.

As the implementation date of the new law loomed, however, the local police chief became concerned about the challenges his officers would face and the new resources the department would need, including new training protocols and cameras to be installed in squad cars (to the tune of about $15 million). The board members reluctantly voted to increase taxes to cover those costs, the law went into effect, and the Latino population scattered. The "Help Save Manassas" campaign had succeeded.

What wasn't accounted for, however, was the devastating effect the ordinance would have on those who remained in the area. Home foreclosures in the county skyrocketed, small businesses shuttered, and the already stretched social fabric of the community was fully torn. As the hard-liners on both sides become more vocal and more polarizing, and as the Help Save Manassas campaign faltered due to poor communication (accusing the police chief of "treason"), and as funding for started to run dry, the tide of the community gradually began to turn against the ordinance. Many of those who had fought for it were now asking the board of supervisors to repeal it, if not amend it. Ultimately, a revised version was developed that required police to check immigration status only after detaining an individual; the probable cause could not be a suspicion of undocumented status alone. This was considered a moderate victory for the Latino community, but at a rather high cost to everyone in the community. In hindsight, questions linger about how the issue could have been better handled by all sides. 

To that end, I had a number of questions swimming around in my head after the film: 

Is it possible to remove emotion from divisive and extremely personal issues like illegal immigration? 

If there is any common thread in politics today, it is that emotion trumps logic in nearly every arena. Listen to talk radio in any market, or tune in to the leading cable "news" show hosts (Olberman, Beck, O'Reilly, Colbert), and it's clear they are not appealing to the logic of their listeners and viewers ("followers"?), but their collective emotion - and often their collective fears. Anderson Cooper and CNN in general have seen their ratings plummet over the last few years. Why? They're boring. Not angry enough. Not emotional enough. It almost seems as if we don't watch the news or follow politics to learn something in 2010; we do it to feel something - perhaps to feel something missing in our otherwise virtual lives. 

So when it comes to a real-world situation (as opposed to those convenient hypothetical ones) like the legal status of the family living next door to us, or our co-workers, or our kid's bus driver, well we don't know how to appropriately consider the facts or even ask questions rationally. We revert to our feelings, to the anger or pity that we've been conditioned to feel. The marathon county board meetings in 9500 Liberty bear this out. Dozens of individuals make emotional but ultimately meaningless pleas at the microphone, as if any of them could have convinced the opposing side of anything.

Am I suggesting we become a nation of robots? Of course not - human interaction requires emotion, and, to use the infamous word of a newly minted Supreme Court Justice: empathy. But what am I suggesting is that the lines have already been drawn in the sand. Glenn Beck is not going to persuade me of anything with his anger about Obama, and I am not going to persuade Beck of anything with my anger about Beck's position as a national icon. We need to use logic, and facts. But if we're both already too far gone off the emotional deep end to respond to facts, there are still a vast majority of Americans in the political center who can appreciate them. These are the people every politician is desperately but rather futilely courting this election year. Look, if John or Juan Q. Public felt the anger you wanted them to feel (about immigration, taxes, the war, etc.), they would already be on your side. An anti-war or anti-tax protest isn't going to change anyone's mind, and neither is a cable television show host, because in both cases the logical discussions and debates that should be happening around these issues are utterly lacking.

I say bring the facts to light, such as the empirical data that supports passing a law (in the case of Manassas there was no data; and retroactively it showed that crime had actually been decreasing in the area), or bring the economic or social consequences of passing a law to light, and then you actually may be able to convince the middle that your position is superior. There is a reason, we should remember, that facts and evidence play a larger role in our judicial system than feelings and opinions. 

But wasn't the Latino/activist community successful in revising the ordinance? 

Not really. A coalescence of circumstances was, but not the efforts of the Latino/activist community, despite their emotional pleas and protests and Gaudencio Fernandez's sign. To put it bluntly, the resolution was revised because its effects were too damaging to the predominantly white local economy. Nobody cared when the Latinos were complaining on the streets or in the board chambers, but when the anti-immigrant community members saw the effect on their pocketbooks, well that changed their mind really quickly, didn't it?

You could understand, then, why many people believe the boycotts of Arizona and Arizona-based businesses will create some kind of change with SB 1070. (After all, divestment was considered a major factor in ending apartheid in South Africa.) It's an emotional response with logical implications, and I'm curious as to how it will play out six months from now. My gut tells me that it's a massive effort that may have only a moderate effect, but then the threat of an Arizona boycott in 1990 over the MLK holiday basically worked, nevermind that it was primarily because Arizonians were desperate to host the lucrative Super Bowl.

In any event, an indiscriminate boycott of Arizona in 2010 will include a significant number of Latino-owned businesses. The Latino community in that state is much more established than in Virginia; how many naturalized Mexican-Americans do you think own and operate businesses in that state? I would wager a rather high number, and though many of them may support SB 1070 anyway (those who have entered legally are often the staunchest opponents of illegal entry), they will all still be in the line of fire. 

So let's get down to brass tacks: what is the significance of Arizona State Bill 1070 as seen through the lens of 9500 Liberty? 

During one of the county board meetings shown in the film, an African-American high school teacher from the community warns the board members that many children of undocumented immigrants are U.S.-born citizens, and that this new generation of Americans is a reality that must be accepted whether they like it or not (full disclosure: I am the U.S.-born child of naturalized parents from two different countries). It's an emotional gut check that, again, doesn't really get to the issue at hand, but along with the film's closing shot of the Obama election night victory, it nonetheless points to the difficult question that many middle aged (and mostly white) Fox News viewers are left asking themselves: have we lost our country?

The law in Arizona is just one attempt to regain some of the American identity its supporters feel is being lost with the influx of Mexicans (as well as undocumented immigrants from everywhere, but for practical purposes, mostly Mexico). But what will SB 1070 actually accomplish? Those found on the wrong side of it will not be immediately deported, if that's what you're thinking. My understanding of the bill is that those who are found to be in the country illegally will be guilty of a Class 1 Misdemeanor (essentially a trespassing charge), with a first offense earning a fine of $100 and up to 20 days in jail (originally $500 and six months). Only if they are in violation of an additional law can they be detained and transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. At least that's my understanding of it - I don't speak legalese and if you read it differently I'd like to know.

So it's a similar but somewhat backwards version of the revised Virginia resolution: there, your immigration status could only be checked after you were stopped for something else, whereas in Arizona your suspected immigration status can be the very reason you are stopped by the police. Indeed, that fuzzy area of suspicion is what all the controversy is really about.

Moving forward, what does this actually mean for SB 1070? Well, theoretically it means that undocumented immigrants are really in no danger of deportation so long as they keep their noses clean. And, contrary to popular belief, the empirical data shows that the vast majority of them are law-abiding anyway. So aside from the threat of racial profiling and police harassment (which will be experienced by citizens and legal immigrants as well), and aside from a possible misdemeanor charge, the passing of SB 1070 is almost a purely symbolic measure.

But in this age of distrust and paranoia, perception is reality, and the current perception is that Arizona is an unwelcome place for those individuals who don't look, you know, "American". Maybe it will send undocumented immigrants running back across the porous border, or maybe it will simply send them out of state. More than likely it will just cause headaches for the police and the state's public relations office. Arizona will suffer economically (completely apart from the cost of implementing this bill) and, in the years to come, as the next generation grows up and the pigmentation of the American population hues a little more beige, laws like this will become effectively impossible to enforce. Rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic, as they say. 

9500 Liberty clearly made me dust off my thinking cap in the midst of the summer blockbusters, and it helped me view the Arizona situation in a new light if for no other reason than it made me actually read SB 1070. Amazing what you can learn when you actually seek out facts, isn't it? Time will tell if this film has accurately forecasted what's on the horizon for that state and the others that are copying it, but the irony of its timing is stunning.

What did you take home?


  1. Daniel - A minor point, but I don't think Colbert can be classified as anything but a comedy show. You're right on the others, though.

    I personally think this is just going to have to play out. Dominant groups never give up their prerogatives without a fight, but sheer numbers are dooming the dominance of white America. And that's neither good nor bad, but reality, which the people who dream up these laws refuse to face. Many people are facing this new reality and trying to change their civil, social, and business practices to reach harmony with a new population, but some are hardheaded and let their racial fears get in the way of common sense.

    Ratings may be plummeting on CNN, but it may not be because Fox News is stealing viewers. There are other places for viewers to go now, including the Internet. I think if we take a bigger-picture look at this, we'll find attrition from TV in general.

  2. I have to admit I don't watch Colbert (or Jon "ALL I DO IS SHOUT AT THE CAMERA" Stewart), but I have to stand by my position that, at least among a younger group of eligible voters, he is truly seen as a source for reputable political news. I've heard a lot of people say they only get their daily news fix from Stewart or Colbert, and even then I have to consider that comedy (if that can be considered an "emotion"), not fact, is the primary way they connect with viewers. But that's mostly beside the point, and you raise an interesting theory about people moving away from TV news in general.

    The real point is that, as you say, we are entering what is essentially unchartered territory not just in the U.S. but across most of the West, where immigrants continue to arrive as second and third generations before them take root in society. My limited knowledge of world history tells me that global migration has happened many times before, but often (as was the case when this country was settled), territories and “countries” essentially existed in silos, save for a war here and there. The last hundred years has obviously brought a huge change as economies have sent people and people groups to all corners of the world for good (and in peace), and coupled with the overall rise in the global population, you can see that this Arizona law is about a lot more than just Arizona, even if people don’t realize it. In other words, it has nothing to do with Americans and Mexicans in 2010.

    We’ll just have to see how long it takes people to recognize that. And even then, the real work comes after recognizing that.

  3. I do watch Colbert, and he uses the news like Johnny Carson or Jay Leno did. Jon Stewart is the "news" show.

    Large-scale migrations to the United States have happened in the 19th and 20th centuries, and after every overseas war. This is an old issue.

  4. I think I knew that about Stewart/Colbert, and should have originally used Stewart anyway...

    Well we can agree that it's an old issue in the sense that the U.S. has always had an open-door policy for immigrants, and maybe this will pass just as the flurry of paranoia and hatred did about other ethnic groups (a woman at one of the board meetings in the film uses an old newspaper clipping to make a sharp comparison to Italians in New York). But, not having been alive for those migrations, something just seems...different about this new wave. Maybe it's the border violence near Mexico, or maybe it's actual prejudices that a number of Americans have, or maybe it's just a lot of media hype (doubtful). I still contend that a tipping point may have been reached in terms of population density (ethnic enclaves are running out of room in the cities and begin to bleed into suburbs and exurbs), and the post-9/11 paranoia still lingers over the issue of border security and global migration.

    Thanks for giving this some thought, by the way. I know Ebert gave a very positive review to 9500 Liberty when it opened in Chicago a couple weeks ago; not sure if it's still playing down there.


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