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A journey into fear and racism

L.A. residents travel to Phoenix to protest Arizona’s controversial immigrant law. It has united left-leaning Angelenos with libertarian Arizonans under a tent of pro-civil rights, populist anger.

April 30, 2010|Hector Tobar

The bus left Koreatown in the predawn darkness and headed east, out of Los Angeles.

Half awake, the 55 people inside watched the morning sun climb over the white sands of the Sonora Desert. They arrived in Phoenix at noon — which is never a good time to arrive in Phoenix.

Stepping out of the bus into 90-degree heat, they marched in circles in front of the copper-domed Arizona State Capitol. Latino men and women struck Korean janggu drums, and Korean American adults and kids carried tall placards with messages in Spanish: Legalización Ahora!

L.A. had arrived in the Valley of the Sun.

The bus riders crossed the desert Sunday to protest the Arizona right's latest assault on democracy, a new law that gives Arizona law enforcement a mandate to demand immigration papers from anyone they "reasonably" suspect could be an illegal immigrant.

"This affects all of us, everywhere," said Hyun Joo Lee of the National Korean American Service and Education Consortium, one of several organizations represented on the L.A.-to-Phoenix ride. "It's about uplifting the values that make this country great."

Court challenges are inevitable. But if Arizona's SB 1070 is allowed to go into effect it will suddenly be dangerous to look or sound like an indocumentado in Arizona.

Popsicle vendors, beware. Mestizos in blue jeans, look out. Grandmothers with thick accents — silencio!

Conceived by the Arizona far right, SB 1070 has already accomplished something truly remarkable. It has united cosmopolitan, left-leaning Angelenos with libertarian, right-leaning Arizonans, throwing them together under a big tent of pro-civil rights, populist anger.

"I left the Marines in December, and I come home to this," said retired Sgt. Alejandro Salazar, a 26-year-old Mexican American from Phoenix, who arrived at the Sunday rally with wife — a Mexican born, legal U.S. resident — and a bright-red Marine Corps flag draped over his shoulder.

Sgt. Salazar served in Afghanistan and Iraq, and in 2008 he voted for Sen. John McCain for president. He finds SB 1070 deeply insulting.

Marines can be tough-looking guys, but out of uniform, Salazar told me, he's just another tough-looking Latino. "I look like I'm illegal," he said. "If you drive a car with a [sound] system, or with rims, you're going to get stopped."

Don Sanders, a 65-year-old retiree from Ahwatukee, which he calls "the Pacific Palisades of Phoenix," was angry enough to come to his first ever immigrant-rights rally.

In 1970, he was living in L.A., a long-haired messenger at MGM studios — and when he drove his beat-up car through nearby Cheviot Hills, the LAPD frequently pulled him over. "I used to get stopped for looking like I didn't belong," Sanders told me. "And that's always wrong."

I asked Sanders if he knew anyone who might be confused with an illegal immigrant. "Hundreds of people," he told me.

Christ Ater, a 35-year-old call-center employee from Phoenix, wore a shirt that asked "Am I Illegal?"

"I made this after our governor said SB 1070 wasn't about race," he said with a mischievous smile. "Well, if it isn't about race, then I should be stopped too. Right? I could be Canadian or Russian."

SB 1070 was a colossal mistake for the anti-legalization movement. They've transformed Arizona into a symbol of intolerance, and given their opponents a potent rallying cry.

The long debate over immigration and its impact on this country has rarely been a rational one. Opponents of legalization draw crude caricatures of the undocumented, while supporters aren't fully honest about the challenges to U.S. society.

The Arizona law pushes the debate further into unreality.

When she signed SB 1070 into law, Gov. Jan Brewer said she was protecting Arizona against Mexican drug cartels. That's a specious argument, as wrongheaded as saying interning Japanese Americans protected us against invasion during World War II.

For a lot of Latino people, SB 1070 is a slap in the face, a cheapening of their citizenship. Teresa Muñoz felt such a strong sense of injustice that she brought her 7-year-old, U.S.-born son Edgar to the Phoenix rally. She had him carry a U.S. flag, while she held a sign over his head featuring an arrow and the question "Illegal?"

Believe it or not, a lot of people think they know what an illegal immigrant looks like. They write to me all the time. They see "illegals" everywhere, on their front lawns and in their hospital clinics. A few seem to think every Latino voice in my column belongs to an "illegal," even such unlikely suspects as kids in South-Central mastering Shakespeare.

If they could cross the cultural divide that separates them from their neighbors, they'd see how short-sighted they are. But now their paranoid vision of life has been codified into law in Arizona — and that's scaring their opponents into action.

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