Editorial: Arizona, S.B. 1070 and the Enablers of Violence

In the end, it came down in line with prior precedent. The Supreme Court, ruling in late June on the Arizona law that set off a tsunami of ugly legislation aimed at undocumented immigrants, affirmed decades of settled law, saying the federal government — not states or cities — has the right to control immigration policy.

The high court’s invalidation of three of the four contested provisions of the law known as S.B. 1070 was immediately spun by nativists as a great victory. After all, they argued, the law’s “papers, please” provision – the part authorizing police to demand that people prove they are lawfully in this country if there is “reasonable suspicion” to believe they are not – had survived. But that was highly disingenuous. In fact, the Court severely limited the scope of the provision and invited further lawsuits challenging it.

The reality, of course, is that Arizona — and the many cities and states that adopted similar laws — lost, and lost big. And so did the major backers of the law, people like Kansas lawyer Kris Kobach, its intellectual architect; Gov. Jan Brewer, who shrieked baselessly about Arizonans being beheaded by immigrants; Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, under federal investigation for racially profiling Latinos; and Russell Pearce, the bill’s main sponsor, who went on to be elected state Senate president before being recalled by voters sick of his nativist antics.

It was about time. These men and women, along with countless other pandering politicians and pundits, had created an atmosphere in Arizona so poisonous that certain elements felt emboldened to go much further.

While the state and other politicians talked about secret Mexican plans to “reconquer” the American Southwest, hard-line “Minutemen” flooded into Arizona to mount armed “civilian border patrols.” As public figures ranted about Latinos intent on defrauding our welfare system and destroying our culture, increasingly angry Americans decided to act, some of them with deadly plans and pipe bombs. When Arpaio frog-marched 210 Latino prisoners in stripes through the streets in a despicable display worthy of some barbaric medieval fiefdom, he thrilled the forces of intolerance, many of whom were ultimately moved to activism.

The line between politicians and neo-Nazis was far thinner in Arizona than most imagined. S.B. 1070 author Russell Pearce was for years a close friend and promoter of a man named J.T. Ready, even after Ready’s neo-Nazi views became publicly known in 2006. Ready recruited into his neo-Nazi group a man who was arrested later, in 2011, with three homemade bombs that he was apparently transporting for use against immigrants on the border. This spring, Ready murdered his girlfriend and three members of her family, including a 1 -year-old child, before killing himself, and the FBI revealed soon after that he had been under investigation for possible vigilante murders in the Arizona desert. The morning after the slaughter, Pearce released a self-serving statement disingenuously accusing the media of “lying” about his relationship to the killer, whom Pearce once called “a true patriot.”

Is it possible that bigoted enablers such as Pearce have added fuel to something much worse than an explosion of intolerance and racial hatred aimed at Latinos in America? That’s the question we tackle in this issue’s cover story: Have American border vigilantes, who have been operating in Arizona for more than a decade now, produced a campaign of murder directed at immigrants?

There is no definitive answer, though the bodies have been piling up. In the late 2000s, an average of 223 bodies of migrants were found every year in just the Tucson Sector, now the busiest section of the border. As we detail, there are marked similarities between the murder of two immigrants this April and the nearby slaying of another four immigrants in two separate 2007 incidents. Although all the murders near the town of Eloy remain unsolved, the Department of Homeland Security, analyzing the two 2007 attacks, concluded, “It appears that the same group of individuals is working in concert to kill IAs [illegal aliens].” The agency also said robbery or drug theft “did not appear to be the motive in either incident” because survivors were left unharmed.

Of course, the Pearces, the Brewers, the Arpaios and the Kobachs of the world do not share criminal culpability for any killing that may have occurred in the state that has become Ground Zero in the immigration debate. There is no evidence that any of them engaged in anything that would amount, for example, to criminal incitement.

But that does not absolve them of moral responsibility. These people watered the seeds of prejudice, and they cannot disavow all relation to what now grows.

Chris Simcox, the one-time Minuteman leader who has now basically withdrawn from the fray, reluctantly said as much when he was tracked down near Phoenix by Report writer Ryan Lenz, author of this issue’s cover story.

“You don’t know who you’re attracting to the border,” Simcox said in discussing the effect of his and others’ activism. “You got guys spinning off, and spinning off, all the time. That was the thing that concerned me most."