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  • Writer's pictureAntonio Gonzales

Arizona law draws widespread indigenous opposition

PHOENIX – A controversial new state anti-immigration law has many American Indians alarmed that tribal sovereignty has been violated, with the looming possibility that individual liberties will be threatened.

The law, S.B. 1070, makes it a crime to be in Arizona illegally, and it requires police to check suspects for residency paperwork. It also bans people from soliciting work or hiring day laborers off the street.

The state’s legislature passed the bill in late-April, with Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signing it into law shortly thereafter.

Republican supporters have argued that the measure is necessary to protect the nation’s borders by reducing illegal immigrants and the burden they place on taxpayers. Some believe that drug cartels and crime will also be combated.

Those ideas have been widely controversial, with many progressive groups, Hispanics, and the Obama administration protesting the law. The main questions center on what factors police will use to decide if a person should be required to show paperwork.

Racial profiling is a top concern, and lawsuits to challenge the law’s legality are certain.

As the debate has progressed, Native American perspectives have also quickly become part of the mix. Many observers have noted that it was the indigenous people of North America who welcomed European immigrants to the continent hundreds of years ago.

The Inter Tribal Council of Arizona has been one of those leading the charge, sending a letter that urged the legislature and governor not to pass the law.

“We have a range of concerns, including tribal sovereign nations not being recognized as able to define and protect their own borders as they see fit, and the possibility that tribal citizens will be profiled by police,” said John Lewis, director of the organization.

Lewis and other ITCA staffers traveled to Washington after the law passed to educate national policy makers about their concerns. Various Native American groups are calling on tribes and Indians to oppose the measure, hopefully to get it repealed.

“This impacts all indigenous people, and the lawmakers need to know it,” Lewis said. “America’s boundaries are not tribal boundaries.”

Lewis noted that some tribes, including the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe, are on and near the U.S.-Mexico border.

“Our tribes have much interaction with Mexico, through culture and life, and I’m not sure people realize that there’s an economic impact involved as well.”

Lewis and others believe that American Indians are likely to be unfairly targeted, based on their appearance and travel patterns. The American Civil Liberties Union has expressed similar concerns, and has vowed to monitor that aspect of the law.

“Even if they are just stopped for five minutes, that is five minutes too many if the rights of people have been infringed,” Lewis said.

Ian Record, an education manager with the Native Nations Institute, said he is concerned that he could be targeted, since his truck has a “Latinos for Obama” sticker on it.

“It’s scary that something like that could be a factor in you getting pulled over. My wife is Latina. We shouldn’t be afraid of that.”‘

Record noted that citizens of the Tohono O’odham Nation and the Pascua Yaqui Tribe have been strongly rallying against the law.

“It complicates things for tribal citizens, especially of those nations. It has to be greatly concerning to everyone that law-abiding citizens of those nations are likely to be pulled over,” Record said.

“The tribe’s sovereignty and the tribal citizens’ rights are obviously being harmed.”

Robert Warrior, the Osage president of the Native American and Indigenous Studies Association, echoed those issues in a letter to the governor April 24.

“Your action as chief executive of the state of Arizona will, when the law takes effect, give license to abuse by police and citizens, making ever more murky the possibility of working towards a just future for all people in the Americas,” wrote Warrior, director of American Indian Studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

“S.B. 1070 will have tremendous negative impact on indigenous people on both sides of the border between the United States and Mexico, and it ought to go without saying that some of the people most impacted by this invidious law are descended from peoples who lived in the Sonoran Desert centuries before anyone even thought of the United States. Regardless of proximity or descent, though, the new law is morally wrong and panders to the worst currents in U.S. politics.”

Warrior said in an interview that the regulation seems to be “myopic by design,” since it seeks to take complex realities and make them seem simple.

“Given that many thousands of indigenous people are from communities that have straddled the U.S.-Mexico border since long before that border came to be, I see this law as a tragic reminder of how polluted political culture in the U.S. has become.”

Warrior said tribal citizens throughout North America should see the situation “as a call to think about where we are headed as indigenous peoples whose right to exist predates the borders that now so often keep us apart.”

“We need a growing consciousness of what our persistence and presence means in the hemisphere. For those of us who are U.S. citizens, a law like this provides an opportunity to oppose the worst currents of U.S. political life and to stand in solidarity with those whose human rights are violated in the name of security.”

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