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Arizona Firestorm: How Politicians and the Media Keep us in the Dark About Immigration

An Eagle Rock linguist explains why anti-immigration laws don’t work—and what can be done to resolve the global issue of immigration.

When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down much of Arizona’s highly publicized immigration law Monday—but left untouched a provision that requires police officers to check the immigration status of people suspected to be undocumented—a predictable chorus of mixed reactions and criticism was reported in the news media.

To Otto Santa Ana, the Supreme Court ruling was unremarkable not so much because the law’s so-called “Show me Your Papers” provision still prevails, but because the entire law, known as SB 1070, is an anachronism in a rapidly globalizing and relentlessly interconnected world.

“I had no idea how the decision on SB 1070 was going to come down, but in hindsight it makes perfect sense—the Supreme Court resolves nothing,” says Santa Ana. “The problem that brings immigrants to the U.S.—globalization—has not been addressed, nor has the relationship of newcomers with established communities been ameliorated.”

Those familiar with the work of Santa Ana, a linguistics professor in the César E. Chávez Department of Chicana/o Studies at UCLA, likely wouldn’t be surprised by the connection he makes between Arizona’s arguably racist law and a world increasingly defined by what New York Times Pulitzer-wining columnist Thomas Friedman has referred to as the three C’s—communication, connectivity and creativity, bound together by international commerce.

Taking on Jay Leno—and Journalistic Metaphors

An Arizona native, Santa Ana has lived for the past 17 years in Eagle Rock, along with his wife, Thelma Meléndez de Santa Ana, superintendent of the Santa Ana Unified School District, who served as U.S. assistant secretary for K-12 education in the Obama administration from 2009 to 2011.

Over the years, Santa Ana has researched and written about some of the most far-reaching cultural and social attitudes toward Latino immigration to America. In the spring of 2006, for example, when hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched across the country to oppose tighter immigration restrictions in an event dubbed “A Day Without Immigrants,” Santa Ana used his linguistic skills to expose what he believed was the racial politics behind the well-known anti-immigration jokes of talks show host Jay Leno. (Sample: “In 1968, the average Mexican woman had seven children. Today, she has two children in Mexico. The other five are in the U.S.”)

Santa Ana has also witnessed and analyzed the dehumanizing terms in which immigrants have been depicted in the media. When Californians overwhelmingly voted for Proposition 187, a notorious 1994 ballot measure that was subsequently deemed unconstitutional but which was aimed at denying undocumented immigrants state benefits, Santa Ana and his students studied two years of newspaper texts about immigrants published before the 1994 vote.

Out of a total of 101 articles in the Los Angeles Times alone, they found 87 separate instances in which immigrants were depicted as animals that, border patrol agents, for example, "herded," "hunted" or "ferreted" out. Although the media's depiction of immigrants isn't as disparaging anymore—Santa Ana believes that animalistic metaphors ultimately turned the public off—it's still markedly offensive. “Now the language about immigrants has gotten softer," he says. "They’re only called criminals.”

So when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070 in April 2010, Santa Ana knew that the law would be used for racial profiling against Latinos—and he braced for the weeks of intense news reporting about the law that would follow.

But the news—and the opinions surrounding it—dismayed Santa Ana. “Instead of edifying the public, the news media covered the frequently parochial responses of Arizona politicians as ends in themselves,” Santa Ana told Patch in a lengthy interview at his Eagle Rock home earlier this week.

Concern About SB 1070

A few days after SB 1070 became Arizona law—spawning copycat bills in 22 other states—Santa Ana got a call from a former television network journalist, Celeste González de Bustamante. A journalism professor at the University of Arizona, Bustamante encouraged Santa Ana to write an op-ed about the law.

“We were both annoyed that journalists were exacerbating the problem—instead of educating the public, they were enjoying the spectacle,” Santa Ana recalls. “We found several fine literary journalistic narratives of the immigrant’s experience, but none regarding the mass media’s influence on immigration policy.”

And while the nation’s bookshelves did contain some sound monographs on immigration, none seemed to address what was happening in Arizona. “I said to Celeste, ‘we really should get a book out—something that covers this ground well enough—and maybe we can get people to read it.’”

‘Arizona Firestorm’

The phone conversation ultimately resulted in Arizona Firestorm: Global Immigration Realities, National Media and Provincial Politics, a 306-page book of original essays (Rowman & Littlefield) that Santa Ana and Bustamante edited, and which was published June 17 on Fathers’ Day.

“Arizona’s immigration policy firestorm is an expression of local frustration at the effects of globalization,” says Santa Ana, explaining that around the world people looking for work and a better living are leaving their hometowns, cultures, everything they grew up with.

“They leave because they’re forced to—and that process has accelerated over the past 40 years,” says Santa Ana. “Immigrants who can’t find jobs in cities go to other countries.”

In Arizona, demagogues have used immigration as an issue to scare voters, says Santa Ana, adding: “The real concern is that they will eventually lose power.”

When Santa Ana was born in Miami, AZ, a mining town where his father helped eliminate Jim Crow laws, people of Mexican origin were 7 percent of the state’s population. That population has now swelled to 30 percent of the state’s 6.4 million people. “That’s why there is so much anxiety,” says Santa Ana, adding: “If not in five years, then in 10 years, voting blocks are going to shift and Arizona is going to become a blue state.”

The Book

Arizona Firestorm is divided into four parts: The first deals with the background to the current crisis, starting with an essay by Santa Ana about the state’s provincial responses to the global phenomenon of immigration. The second section focuses on the firestorm itself—SB 1070, institutionalized racism, and why efforts to amend the Constitution to address immigration won’t solve the issue. Part Three takes a look at the role of the mass media in framing the immigration issue, including some striking differences in coverage between the Spanish-language TV networks and elite U.S. newspapers. The final section focuses on prospects for the future, ending with a chapter by Santa Ana and Bustamante, titled, “Can America Learn to Think Globally? We Don’t at Our Own Risk.”

Why Anti-Immigrant Policies Don’t Work

“If you try to put up walls in cities and towns where there are sudden increases in the numbers of newcomers, you never eliminate the immigrants,” argues Santa Ana, citing the example of a city in Pennsylvania called Hazleton, where a municipal law that was eventually overturned in court barred landlords from renting apartments to undocumented immigrants. “The immigrants left, and so did the children,” says Santa Ana. “The law took a lot of money to enforce, the town’s economic base collapsed and it went into receivership."

In sharp contrast, a small city of about 50,000 people in Maine called Lewiston found itself facing a sudden influx of Muslim refugees from Somalia around 2002. “That culture is very different—you can imagine the challenge for Calvinist New Englanders—but what was positive about that situation was that the city’s leadership went out and said to the leadership of the Somalis, ‘we have a challenge—we want to welcome you and learn about you and want you to help and work with us.’”

The result was that leaders from both communities got together and one of the first things they did was to organize ESL classes for Somali children in the city’s schools so that they would not fall behind in their education and that any tension between the native kids and the immigrant children would be reduced, explains Santa Ana. At the same time, community leaders organized courses for city folk in which Maine natives learned about Somalis and Somalis became aware of local cultural expectations.

“The city was able to go to both the state and the federal government to get resources for education and social services to integrate the Somali community,” says Santa Ana, adding: “In 10 years, the city’s mayor was boastful that the Somalis have revitalized our community” by opening businesses in empty storefronts downtown.

“Of course there were tensions, but the children play together and the city was one community made up of two different ethnicities.” (See the attached PDF for a detailed study about how the Maine community handled its immigration issue differently from another city in Nebraska, which received an influx of Latino immigrants.)

Lessons for Arizona—and Beyond

Santa Ana believes that similar approaches in Arizona would have been successful as well—if local leaders embraced the challenge and the mass media helped highlight it.

“What’s required is for the leadership of the established community to be willing to take the first steps—to reach out and say, ‘welcome—how can we work together?’” says Santa Ana, adding: “The role of the media is to provide opportunities for announcements and explanations and stories, to short-circuit demagoguery, to point out ignorance and flush out the racism.”

To resolve problems stemming from immigration, local leadership doesn’t have to be elected. “It can be a young person or a pastor,” says Santa Ana. “What’s important is that it has to be willing to deal with racism and scorn.”

Tim Howells June 28, 2012 at 02:13 PM
Pure anti-White drivel. Why is that ALL white countries and ONLY white countries are being targeted with massive third-world immigration? Why are Japan, Saudi Arabia, Mexico or Nigeria not being attacked in this way? This is pure genocidal hatred and loathing directed against my race.
Ajay Singh June 28, 2012 at 03:07 PM
Thanks, Tim—but to correct two inaccuracies in your comment: First, Japan was heavily targeted by up to 2 million undocumented immigrants throughout the late 1980s and the 1990s, mainly by young men fleeing the 1977 Iranian revolution that deposed the U.S.-supported Shah of Iran. (2 million's not a small figure for a small postindustrial island nation like Japan.) Second, Japan isn't considered "third-world," to use your cold war terminology. It's Asia's only First World nation.
Tim Howells July 01, 2012 at 03:09 PM
I did not say Japan was a third world country - of course it is a first-world country as you say. Re Iranians - your numbers are grossly exaggerated, and also completely out of date as per Wikipedia (See quote below). Japan has cleared up the situation and deported all but a very few. Therefore the points I made regarding the anti-White bigotry and genocidal racism of this article stands. Japan is not being flooded with non-Japanese immigration. These genocidal policies are for ALL white countries and ONLY white countries. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iranians_in_Japan "Iranians used to form Japan's largest population of illegal immigrants, with an estimated peak of 32,994 individuals in 1992 (based on cumulative analysis of entrance statistics), but due to aggressive deportations, that number fell by over 82% to just 5,821 in 2000.[3] ... Due to their inability to legalise their visa situation, 95% of Iranian migrants to Japan eventually returned to Iran; only a few, typically those who married Japanese citizens or found an employer who could sponsor their visa application, were able to stay."
Otto SANTA ANA July 14, 2012 at 11:23 PM
Dear Tim, How can you say that the USA a White country? Much less an all White country? From the beginning of the colonies, people from many countries and all the continents immigrated. They added to the diversity of native peoples who had lived for 10,000 years in the Americas. Only isolated island nations, like Japan and Iceland, may be considered populated by one predominant type of people. But this is besides the point of Arizona Firestorm. The main topic is immigration, a feature of the world since before Columbus’ voyages. The goal of Arizona Firestorm is to offer readers an authoritative and realistic view of immigration, so better legislation can be crafted. The actions of Arizona legislators have not succeeded in making things better for the people of Arizona.

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