Thousands of people marched through the streets of Phoenix on Saturday
to protest a state law taking effect July 29 that will allow the police in
Arizona to check the immigration status of people they have stopped
for another reason.
Photo By Jim Wilson
By Randall C. Archibold
The New York Times
PHOENIX — Two sides of the immigration debate converged here Saturday: a throng of several thousand marching for five miles opposed to Arizona’s new immigration law, and several thousand nearly filling a nearby stadium in the evening in support of it.
Organizers said the timing was coincidental, with both sides taking advantage of a holiday weekend to bring out the masses. But the gatherings encapsulated in a single day the passions surrounding the national immigration debate, recharged by the new law, which will expand the state’s role in immigration enforcement.
Both demonstrations made a point of waving a large number of American flags and issuing pleas for a national overhaul of immigration law, but they offered a jarring study in how polarized the debate has become here.
The demonstrators against the law were mostly Latino, with young people and families making up a large share. They played drums, whistled and chanted and gave speeches in Spanish and English denouncing the perceived racism behind the law. Many carried posters or wore T-shirts with the message: “Do I look illegal?”
At the rally in favor of the law, which began with the pledge of allegiance and the national anthem, any mention of Mexico or supporters of the law brought lusty boos — a video clip of President Felipe Calderón of Mexico especially fired up the crowd, which was mostly white and middle-aged or older. Placards like “Illegals out of the U.S.A.” were typical, though speaker after speaker ridiculed the idea that the crowd was racist.
Far more attended the earlier rally opposed to the law, which included a five-mile march to the Capitol in withering heat. It was one of the largest since Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law April 23.
Some were citizens, like Armando Diaz, 33, a mechanic born and raised here who believes the law has helped spread anti-Latino fervor in the state.
“This is not what Arizona is about, hate,” Mr. Diaz said as he neared the capitol, where people fled for what little shade they could find. “But that is what this law is about.”
The later rally, at sundown, was organized by Tea Party groups from St. Louis and Dallas who said they decided to take the lead and support the state against a wave of boycotts protesting the law, some by cities like San Francisco and Seattle.
“We are doing this to crush any boycott against the free market,” said Tina Loudon, a Tea Party member from St. Louis who helped organize the rally. “Arizona has a sovereign right to enforce immigration laws on the books.”
The law — barring any successful legal challenges — will take effect July 29. It would allow the police to check the immigration status of people they suspect are illegal immigrants when they have been stopped for another reason. It also makes it a state crime, not just a federal one, to not carry immigration papers.
Advocates see it as a tool for law enforcement to weed out illegal immigrants, while five lawsuits filed against it call it an infringement on federal authority and suggest that Latino citizens and legal residents will be swept up for questioning.
On another front, the governor and attorney general are disputing who will defend the state against the legal challenges and possible litigation by the United States Justice Department.
Ms. Brewer, a Republican, said Friday she had removed the state’s attorney general, a Democrat and vocal opponent of the law, from defending it, accusing him of colluding with the Justice Department as it nears a decision on whether to challenge the law in court.
But the matter remained in dispute on Saturday, as the attorney general, Terry Goddard, a Democrat and potential challenger in her re-election bid, said in an e-mail message that he was “definitely defending the state” in legal challenges to the law.
Ms. Brewer said she took action after Mr. Goddard met Friday with Justice Department lawyers, who then met with her legal advisers.
Justice Department officials said they routinely meet with a state’s attorney general and governor when considering legal action against their state.
“We continue to have concerns that the law drives a wedge between law enforcement and the communities they serve, and are examining it to see what options are available to the federal government,” said Tracy Schmaler, a department spokeswoman.
The United States attorney general, Eric H. Holder Jr., has said he worries that the law may intrude on federal authority and lead to racial profiling.
Protest rallies were also held Saturday at the state capitols in Texas and Oregon, as well as in San Francisco, according to The Associated Press.
At the Arizona demonstrations, opinions could not be further apart.
Mireya Chavez Cerna, 43, an illegal immigrant who works as a maid, marched with her 9-year-old son, who was born in the United States and wore a shirt reading “Made in America.”
She denounced the climate of fear in the state and said immigrants like her could not abide the wait of a decade or more for a legal visa while their families grow hungry.
“Do you think we would risk losing our lives crossing the border if we didn’t have a need to come here for a better life?” she said. Supporters of the law “don’t know,” she added. “They don’t understand. They don’t live in Mexico. They don’t know how it is.”
But Ann Hyde, a radiological technologist from Chandler, said she grew frustrated at supporters being tarred as prejudiced or worse.
“We are not racists,” she said. “This law is about respecting the laws of the nation and the economic impact of illegal immigration, which is enormous. My state is broke and they cost us with spending on schools, hospitals and other services.”
Though violent crime is declining in Arizona, as in most other states, and illegal immigration is down at the border, speakers played up crimes that illegal immigrants have been charged with over the years, including shooting of police officers.
“One is too many,” said Mark Spencer, the chairman of a union representing rank-and-file police officers in Phoenix.
Ana Facio Contreras contributed from Phoenix.
See Related: ARIZONA IMMIGRATION LAW ARCHIVE