By Joel Olson
As spring heats into summer in the desert, two Arizonas fight for supremacy. One, lodged in power in the Arizona State Capitol, drafts anti-immigrant and “fiscally responsible” bills with glee. It is old, it is white, it is dour and narrow. The other protests these bills from outside the capitol walls. It is young, it is largely brown, it is hopeful but it is angry, and it aims to clash with the old Arizona. On Thursday it earned its first victory.
On Wednesday, one hundred youth from six weeks old to drinking age marched on the Capitol to protest a rash of anti-immigrant bills that, if passed, would have made Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 look like an act of charity. These five bills challenged the Fourteenth Amendment’s guarantee of birthright citizenship and would have required every member of official society—from nurses to teachers to school secretaries to doctors to employers—to check a person’s immigration status before healing or educating or hiring them.
The youngest walked in front, dressed up in costumes that represented what they want to be when they grow up. High school and college students followed them. And so the next generation of doctors, baseball players, construction workers, and firefighters descended on the capitol. They chanted “Our Freedom! Our Future!” and sang the civil rights standard, “This Little Light of Mine.” One 30-foot banner had hundreds of kids’ handprints on it along with written messages to the legislature. Another, carried by middle school students, read “Russell Pearce: Why Do You Hate AZ Youth?”
When they arrived at the capitol they sang, “Jesus Loves the Little Children.” This classic Sunday school song has probably never been sung with such bite, for in singing to the legislature that Jesus loves the children of the world, they suggested that many Arizona legislators don’t. The chants and songs—which could be heard from inside the capitol building—had to prick the hearts of the “Christian conservatives” debating at that very moment how many millions to cut from the public schools and children’s health care.
The Arizona state legislature is firmly controlled by Republicans who represent white working and middle class constituents, including small businessmen and retirees, from suburbs and small towns like Mesa, Gilbert, Fountain Hills, Snowflake, and Lake Havasu City. These white nativist cranks are determined to scapegoat immigrants for the state’s deep fiscal crisis (Arizona is about $3.8 billion in the red) despite the fact that every reputable study shows that immigrants—documented or not—are a net gain to a state’s economy.
Herein lies the secret of Arizona’s nutty nativism: it is the outer shell of an intensive effort by elites to “reduce government” through deep cuts in public education, Medicaid, welfare, and the universities—while actually expanding the power of the state through border militarization and turning police officers, teachers, principals, nurses, and doctors into immigration agents.
Like the anti-union legislation in Wisconsin, anti-immigrant legislation in Arizona is the front line of a conservative attack on the welfare state. The plan: First, blame the recession on “illegals” and public school teachers—but not Wall Street barons. Second, use the fiscal crisis in state budgets to justify deep cuts in public services as a “necessary measure.” Third, tell the public, “Everyone must make sacrifices.” Fourth, (and in direct contradiction to #3), cut business taxes deeply in order to “spur investment.” Fifth, use the predictable loss of tax revenue to justify more extensive cuts in public services, which justifies further tax breaks for the rich, which… well, you see the pattern. In other countries this process would be led by the World Bank and would be called “structural adjustment.” Here it comes from whites of modest means at Tea Party rallies underwritten by the Koch brothers. The whole thing looks particularly absurd in Arizona because our politicians are more obnoxious than elsewhere, but it’s a nationwide affliction.
But this working class nightmare is being challenged by Arizona’s youth, who have a very different vision of the future. Of the three great populist responses to the Great Recession so far (the Tea Party and Wisconsin being the other two), the immigrant rights movement most suggests a new world. The Tea Party, of course, suggests not the future but the past, with its laissez-faire policies turned into populist slogans through white resentment. The massive demonstrations in defense of public sector workers in Wisconsin have been among the most inspiring in the U.S. in a decade, but it is hard to tell whether Wisconsin signals the birth of a new movement or is the last gasp of the old. Its energized defense of the working class and its occasional militancy inspire fresh hope, but its defense of a long-declining union movement and its overwhelming whiteness make it seem like a struggle from an earlier era.
By contrast, the movement against nativism feels new. Though it began before the recession, with major nationwide demonstrations in May 2006, since 2008 it has had to dig in for the long haul in response to a rash of anti-immigrant bills from Arizona to Georgia. And in doing so, it has not followed the typical paths of movement building by the left. Completely absent at Wednesday’s youth march, for example, were unions, civil rights organizations, and representatives from nonprofits. This protest was entirely from the grassroots, and young people were in the vanguard.
Undocumented parents—who have risked everything for a better life for their families by coming to the U.S.—are understandably hesitant to enter the political fray, although many do. But their children, many of them U.S. citizens and most of them fairly Americanized, are ready to fight. They fear losing their parents and other relatives to ICE raids—many already have. They are determined to not let it happen again. One middle school student at the protest, who has already had two uncles deported, defiantly told to the crowd through the bullhorn, “I don’t want to lose more of my family than I already have.”
Their documented friends are ready to fight, too. In Arizona, if you go to a public school, chances are you have undocumented classmates. As a result, many young people here, including whites, have friends who are undocumented. Empathy for their situation cuts across race and class among these youth. In one speech, a third-grader said, “My friends are endangered and threatened and I don’t want them to go to Mexico and live on the streets.”
So it’s not surprising that youth are taking the lead in the struggle against the nativist teabaggers. High school students throughout Phoenix walked out last week to protest the anti-immigrant bills, many of them marching many miles from their schools to the state capitol. Thousands walked out last spring in the fight against SB 1070, too. And that’s why they marched on the Capitol on Wednesday.
Immediately after the march hit the local news, grouches in the blogosphere complained that the kids were being “used” by grownups in the immigrant rights movement, and that they should be studying or playing rather than being “exposed” to politics at this young age. As if young folks don’t know what’s happening to them! As if they can’t engage in politics and do their homework and watch cartoons, too! (They are a multi-tasking generation, after all.) Such criticism pretends to express concern for children, but they are really just further attempts to patronize and depoliticize young folks, and keep them from shaping their own future.
And then, the youth of Arizona tasted their first victory. The very next day after the march, the legislature fiercely debated all five bills, and all five of them went down in defeat! The Republicans who joined Democrats in voting against them said they were moved by arguments from corporate Arizona that these bills were “bad for business” and a “distraction” to the budget crisis. But kids know they were heard, too. Insiders at the Capitol tell me that the place was abuzz with the youth protest, and that it had them worried: if they are already protesting now, before the bill goes to the governor for her signature, what will they do in the next few weeks? The aura of ungovernability hung in the air. Further, the media has started to discuss how anti-immigrant laws are affecting Arizona’s youth and how nativist legislation is connected to budget cuts. Many are starting to openly wonder how such bills and laws will affect Arizona’s future. They act like they have come up with these questions on their own, but kids know better.
This is only one battle in the fight for Arizona. The nativists, led by Senate President Russell Pearce, will counterattack soon. But the other Arizona, the Arizona that exists in the eyes of its youth, will be ready for that, too.
Arizona’s young folks know how nativism affects their future. And they are not standing for it. While the state legislature seeks to hurl Arizona into a laissez-faire dystopia where brown people are neither seen nor heard, Arizona’s youth are struggling for a new future, one in which they and their families are free to live, to love, and to work wherever they please. This is their state. As a six-year-old told a reporter at the march, “We are here to fight for freedom.”