A New Law Spawns Fear in the Immigrant Community, and Artists Tackle the Ongoing Repression in Maricopa County

Ramon Delgadillo's Crucifixion, now on display at the new Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center in downtown Phoenix.


One of the most insidious myths of the anti-immigrant movement is that the undocumented receive truckloads of public assistance, that they are a drain on the system, costing the American public untold billions.

I heard this vicious lie repeated over and over again during a nativist rally on the Arizona Capitol lawn in mid-November, when motorcycle thugs — members of Riders Against Illegal Aliens — scapegoated Mexican immigrants for everything from the financial crisis to high unemployment to the federal deficit to the housing bubble.

I'm surprised they didn't try blaming Mexicans for the ravages of old age and cancer while they were at it.

When I countered this public-benefits lie with the simple fact that the undocumented are barred from federal welfare rolls, I was scoffed at. As it was with Ronald Reagan's "welfare queens," the lie persists even when there's nothing to back it up. That's because it's something idiots like those at the Capitol that day want to believe as rationale for their hateful bigotry.

Thing is, even the nativist intellectuals (if you can call them that) over at the Washington-based Federation for American Immigration Reform accept the fact that the undocumented are ineligible for all but emergency assistance. In an unsigned document on FAIR's Web site titled "Immigration and Welfare," FAIR admits as much with the following statement:

"Illegal immigrants are barred from the following federal public benefits: grants, contracts, loans, licenses, retirement, welfare, health, disability, public or assisted housing, post-secondary education, food assistance, and unemployment benefits. States are barred from providing state or locally funded benefits to illegal immigrants unless a state law is enacted granting such authority."

Why, it was none other than that dangerous liberal Democrat President Bill Clinton who made these restrictions a reality by signing into law the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act. The welfare-reform law was the product of a Republican Congress, and had its seeds in Newt Gingrich's Contract with America.

Despite FAIR's admission, it spends most of the same online document bashing the public benefits that legal immigrants are still entitled to. Legal, illegal — it doesn't matter to nativists. That's why they're nativists, because contrary to their claims, they generally despise all immigrants — particularly if the newcomers are not as white as the Pillsbury Doughboy.

But like a bad virus, you can't keep a good lie down. Enter Proposition 200, which passed in 2004 with 56 percent of the vote and redundantly prevented illegal immigrants from obtaining public benefits, as well as required proof of citizenship at the polls. The new law made it a class 2 misdemeanor for government workers not to report suspected violations of federal immigration law, and it established what legal beagles call "a private right of action." That is, it gave citizens the opportunity to sue "any agent or agency of this state or its political subdivisions to remedy any violation" of the law.

Prop 200 was backed by a pack of vicious racists and extremist nativists, including ex-Kia dealer Rusty Childress, founder of United for a Sovereign America, which has accepted neo-Nazis into its ranks, and Cuban-born bigot Virginia Abernathy, who's denied being a racist, though she once told the Arizona Republic, "I'm in favor of separatism," and that each ethnic group is "happier with its own kind."

That Abernathy was the chair of the national advisory board for the Prop 200 group Protect Arizona Now and that neo-Nazi hugger and state Senator Russell Pearce was the co-author of the prop should tell you everything you need to know.

In response to an inquiry from the director of the state's Medicaid program, the Arizona Health Care Cost Containment System, Attorney General Terry Goddard issued an opinion shortly after the prop's passage stating that the law's application to "state and local public benefits that are not federally mandated" indicated just that — state and local assistance. The prop did not apply to federally mandated programs such as AHCCCS, which provides medical care to the poor.

Goddard's opinion observed that the law amended Title 46 of the Arizona legal code, which deals with state and local benefits, and that access to AHCCCS was already denied illegal immigrants by 1996 federal welfare reform. The opinion also noted a similar California law, Prop 187, passed in 1994, was overruled by a federal district court.

Prop 200 backers sued, claiming erroneously that the state was not implementing the law properly. The case is still in court, though the Prop 200 law effectively has been rendered moot by a new, broader version of the same thing, known as HB2008, which was sneaked through the Legislature's special session in July. This time, Pearce and his allies made sure the new law amended Title 1 of the Arizona Revised Statutes. That's the section dealing with "general provisions," so it could have a potentially wide impact.


How wide? So wide that cities and towns might have to worry about reporting suspected illegal immigrants who use city parks or have their homes saved by firefighters. Not only would government employees be criminally liable, with a possible four months in the slammer for a class 2 misdemeanor, state and county agencies and cities and towns could be sued by any nativist nutcase with an ax to grind.

That's one reason the League of Arizona Cities and Towns recently filed a petition with the Arizona Supreme Court, arguing that the law violated the state's Constitution. They made a strong case, as the Constitution contains a prohibition against legislative logrolling. In other words, jamming disparate pieces of legislation into a bill — in this case, an appropriations bill — that has nothing to do with the intent of the prospective law. There were other parts of the legislation dealing with development fees and building codes to which the League also objected.

A petition prepared by attorneys for the firm Osborn Maledon asked the state Supremes to grant a stay based on the "irreparable harm" HB2008 could cause the League's 90 members. The right to sue "could expose Arizona's cities and towns to innumerable lawsuits over the administration of public benefits."

On December 2, the justices punted, refusing to grant a stay, informing the League it could re-file in a lower court. The League's executive director, Ken Strobeck, told me that his governing board had yet to make a decision on whether to go forward with the lawsuit.

Governor Jan Brewer and other putatively moderate Republicans, such as House Speaker Kirk Adams, decried the League's effort, claiming it wanted to shield illegal immigrants from getting public benefits. Pure poppycock. The League merely wanted to keep its members from getting sued into extinction with frivolous claims.

"The League complies with federal law, or its members do," Osborn Maledon lawyer Tom Hudson told me. "It's really exposing municipal workers to those kinds of lawsuits. So it's very painful from our perspective, with the waste of resources [cities] face in having to defend against those kinds of actions."

The law is harmful in another area, in a way racists like Russell Pearce no doubt enjoy: The fear and uncertainty that Arizona's immigrant community now has to deal with — even when members legally apply for certain public benefits or just show up to an emergency room or stand in line for a flu shot.

Under federal law, ER visits, disaster relief, and similar services do not require proof of legal residency or citizenship. Moreover, American-born children with undocumented parents — U.S. citizens under the Constitution's 14th Amendment — are also eligible for public assistance. The nativists deride such children as "anchor babies," but they are on the wrong side of the U.S. Constitution and U.S. history.

Stephen Meissner, top flack for the Arizona Department of Economic Security, told me that undocumented parents applying for benefits on behalf of their citizen children would not have to provide documents relating to residency status. They need only prove that their kids are U.S. citizens. He also said illegal immigrants have not been able to receive most forms of welfare for quite some time.

"We have been requiring people to demonstrate they are in the country legally for several years now," said Meissner, who added that from the DES' perspective HB2008 would not change much about the way the agency does business.

"If you come to us and you present us with documents that say you're in the country illegally, we're obligated to report you," he said. "If you come to us and determine that you have to prove your citizenship and you simply walk away, we have no evidence that a crime has been committed."

Yet Meissner admitted that the DES, which administers a slew of federal-aid programs, has already reported numerous individuals to its internal Office of Special Investigations and to Immigration and Customs Enforcement, since HB2008 went into effect a few weeks ago. He did not have specific numbers at press time. ICE spokesman Vinnie Picard told me he was unaware of any reports yet being made to ICE. But since the law is new, there could be lag time.

Phoenix civil rights activist Sal Reza complained that HB2008 was merely the latest round in Arizona's war on immigrants. Though the undocumented are legally able to apply for aid on behalf of their children, they are terrified at the idea they may be deported after a visit to the DES or other agencies.

"The law is making civil employees de facto ICE agents," Reza said. "It's worse than making the police ICE agents. Because now you're talking about [reporting] people whose health and livelihood are on the line."


Reza claimed that because of the confusion engendered by the law, hundreds of appointments with state agencies have been canceled by immigrants fearful that they will be reported to ICE. He said he and other activists are advising immigrants to apply for whatever benefits they are legally due, but not to answer questions about immigration status.

"It's really, really bad," stated Reza of the widespread fear in his community. "Right now, [state agencies] have an interpretation of the law, but interpretations can change. The law is there. Terry Goddard could come in and limit it, but I don't think he's going to do what he did with Prop 200."


Art, agit-prop, music, performance are all useful weapons in the ongoing battle against the unjust treatment of Hispanics in Mari-Kafka County, as some wags call it, and Ari-bama in general. Not only does such expression convey defiance, it acts as inspiration for those deeply involved in the immigrant rights movement and those just on the fringes.

Some artists already have stepped up to make a stand, such as Rage Against the Machine/One Day as a Lion frontman Zack de la Rocha and Ernesto Yerena, an L.A. graphic artist who works with Shepard Fairey, of Obama/Hope poster fame. There have been local artists, as well, but not nearly enough to counterbalance the ongoing injustice and tyranny of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and others.

Within the past couple of weeks, however, I've seen signs that local creative types are beginning to agitate. There was the recent parody of Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody" (with pro-immigrant lyrics) that interrupted the last 15 minutes of Arpaio's appearance at the ASU's Cronkite School of Journalism.

While some students were disrupting Joe's confab with journalism profs, a group of anarchists and activists took the school's lobby, without a peep from the police. There, the Phoenix "punkgrass" trio Haymarket Squares gave an impromptu concert, crooning an anti-Arpaio song with lyrics making mention of the victims in Joe's jails. I've posted a YouTube video of the Haymarketers in action on my Feathered Bastard blog. You can also catch them on Friday, December 11, at Mardi Gras Bar & Grill in Scottsdale.

The Haymarket Squares' "Sheriff Joe" ditty recalls such folk songsters of yore, such as Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie. It makes a cool companion piece to Tucson rapper Outlaw Fleetwood's hip-hop tune "Tent City," which I wrote about in a September Bird column.

In addition, the opening of the new Arizona Latino Arts and Cultural Center, at 147 East Adams Street, across from the Hyatt hotel downtown, featured a handful of artworks aimed at Arpaio, the MCSO, and their persecution of the undocumented. ALAC's debut exhibit, "Visiones," included more than 45 artists, most of them doing less-controversial stuff. But it was the anti-Joe material that caught my eye.

Chino Valley sculptor David Romo depicted Arpaio as a creepy, lizard-y king, with an alligator head topped by a copper crown and a skeletal steel body that held a pair of handcuffs in one hand and a key in the other.

A mini-mural on canvas done by Phoenix artist Francisco Garcia showed an Arizona divided, literally, by a bifurcated face. Half was Joe's face, flanked by an MCSO deputy in a black ski mask, drawing down on the viewer. The left half was the face of César Chávez, and to his side, Latino students demonstrating in favor of the Dream Act.

The masked cop was inspired by a March New Times cover illustrating Village Voice Media Executive Editor Michael Lacey's feature, "Are Your Papers in Order?," the beginning of our series on Arpaio's racial profiling. You may also recall that Garcia is the same artist whose work was censored by the Pine-Strawberry Elementary School because it included the image of an African-American child.

The third anti-MCSO offering was the most iconic, and the most powerful: painter Ramon Delgadillo's Crucifixion. On an orange backdrop, a sheriff's deputy points his handgun at a kneeling prisoner. The prisoner's arms are outstretched, his hands bearing stigmata. Around his head is a golden aura indicating sainthood.

"Everybody's being crucified by this guy [Arpaio]," Delgadillo, 60, said to me about the religious overtones in his piece. "That's the way I feel about what he's doing to our people."

Delgadillo has experienced MCSO discrimination first-hand. A court interpreter, he was denied access to Joe's jails in 2007, even though he'd worked in the court system for more than 25 years, and though he was and is a naturalized American citizen. Arpaio's goons were demanding that Delgadillo prove his citizenship.

"Throughout time, artists have been the voice of rebellion," said Delgadillo, who still works for the courts as a freelance interpreter. "And they have exposed things like this to the world. I can't imagine doing something just because it looks pretty."

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