The 21st Century Civil Rights Movement

Arizona’s new immigration law has awakened a sleeping giant, with hundreds of thousands of people finding creative ways to stand in solidarity with Arizona’s Latino community.
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Protesters gather at a May Day Immigration Rally 2010 in Los Angeles, CA.

Photo by jvoves

Earlier this month, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets across the nation in support of immigration reform. It was the fourth in a series of yearly marches that started in May of 2006 to protest anti-immigrant legislation. But this year, the marchers had a very specific reason for protesting: a few days earlier, Arizona had passed S.B. 1070, a law that makes it a crime not to carry proof of legal residency, encouraging racial profiling, harassment, and discrimination against Latinos.

As a result of the Arizona immigration law, this year’s May 1 marches took on a distinctly different flavor. People took to the streets in record numbers, declaring their solidarity with Latinos in Arizona and their rejection of the law. Even politicians turned to nonviolent civil disobedience rather than speeches and promises: Representative Luis Guiterrez of Illinois was arrested, along with a group of other leaders, after declaring that he would not move from the fence in front of the White House until comprehensive immigration reform was passed. 

Dr. Warren Stewart, the pastor of a Baptist church in Phoenix, warned the bill’s supporters: "You have awakened the 21st century civil rights movement."

Dr. Warren Stewart, the pastor of a Baptist church in Phoenix, warned the bill’s supporters: "You have awakened the 21st century civil rights movement." He has it right. They have awakened the sleeping giant. Latinos have had enough; Americans have had enough. And we are standing up against these unjust measures. Creative responses to Arizona’s law, which goes into effect at the end of July, have been making headlines since it was proposed.

Within Arizona, opponents of the bill are making their voices heard. The sheriff of Pima, Az. has said he will refuse to enforce a law he calls “irresponsible.” U.S. Representative Raul Grijalva of Arizona called for an economic boycott of his own state. The city councils of Tucson, Flagstaff, and San Luis voted to sue the state over the law; the mayor of Phoenix would like to do the same, but is being blocked by the city council. Police officers from Phoenix and Tucson have also filed suit, requesting that local police be exempt from enforcing what they consider an unconstitutional law. And today, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund have filed lawsuits on behalf of Arizona residents, one of whom has already been asked, twice, for proof of citizenship—despite the fact that S.B. 1070 has yet to go into effect.

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Photo by jvoves

Many of the law’s opponents outside of Arizona have decided that staying out—boycotting conferences and vacations or refusing to buy from companies whose tax payments support the state—is their most effective form of protesting. Mexico’s government has issued a travel advisory, warning residents not to travel to Arizona for fear of arrest. City councils in Oakland, Austin, Seattle, Washington, D.C., Los Angeles, and Boston have voted to condemn the bill and urged city officials not to travel to Arizona or do business with companies headquartered there.

Professional sports franchises and players have been some of the strongest critics of the law. The Phoenix Suns wore jerseys reading “Los Suns” to a playoff game in a move that Republican owner Robert Sarver said was meant to “honor our Latino community and the diversity of our league, the state of Arizona, and our nation.” The Major League Baseball Players Association condemned the law, pointing out the effects it could have on players and their families, and pledged to “consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of our members” if the law is not modified or repealed. Some have suggested that the 2011 MLB All-Star Game be moved from its planned location in Arizona; while commissioner Bud Selig says that won’t happen, boycotts by teams and players are already being discussed.

As Arizona learned when the National Football League rescinded its decision to host the 1993 Super Bowl in Tempe, Az. following Arizona’s refusal to recognize Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the threat of lost income from sports can be a powerful incentive for change (two years later, Arizona residents decided, by popular vote, to create a state holiday honoring Martin Luther King, Jr.).

Grassroots groups are also challenging the law’s use of racial profiling. Last week, Latinos in Social Media launched the Latino2 campaign encouraging Latinos—and everyone who supports human rights—to stand in solidarity with the Latinos of Arizona by proudly declaring, “I am Latino 2.” The group Cuéntame launched a campaign called “Do I Look Illegal?” which quickly became a top Latino activist page on Facebook.

The time for immigration reform has come. But immigration laws must not be draconian. They must reflect the history of this country and the legacy of the immigrants that founded it. There is fear. There is hate. But there is also love and hope. I believe that, with the help of the voices and leadership of the grassroots, the collective power of love and hope will win. We will vote with our feet, with our money, and with our electoral power. And if our leaders do not lead us, we will step up to lead them to the promised land. Martin Luther King, Jr. said that arc of the moral universe bends towards justice—but as President Obama said when he was running for office, this only happens if we place our hand on it and bend it.

Kety Esquival

Kety Esquival

  • :: Undocumented students risk deportation to tell the stories of immigrants living in the shadows.
  • :: Pramila Jayapal on race, immigration, and how to talk across the political divide.