May 5, 2010

Arizona Immigration Law

By Brandi Denison

“Arizona” is a word that is now spoken with utter disdain, at least in my circles and perhaps in yours too. Unless you have been hiding under a rock, Arizona Immigration Law SB 1070 and the subsequent arrest of American-born truck driver has inspired a range of opinions—that we should boycott the state and it’s products or that we should support the state for acting on an issue that the federal government has stalled on. National conversation about the immigration law provides a moment of visibility to religious activists, as well as a moment for us to reflect on Arizona’s complicated history with immigration, race, and religion.

Randall Stephens pointed readers of the Religion in American History blog to an interview with Catholic Bishop Gerald Kicanas as a way to help us gauge the religious response to this racist law.

Bishop Kincanas has been a long time advocate for immigration reform through the ecumenical movement “No More Deaths,” a non-profit organization dedicated to treating immigrants as human beings—including an effort to making water available to people who attempt the dangerous walk across the Sonora Desert. This organization makes the “radical” statement that “humanitarian aid is never a crime.” While it might be easy to associate this immigration law with loosely veiled religious and political conservatism, No More Deaths reminds us of the counters of religious responses to hot-button issues.

As an emerging American Religions historian, I can’t help but think about Arizona’s complicated history with the United States and the role of Catholicism and Protestantism in the efforts to assimilate Arizona into the Union. In the last 150 years, Arizona has been at the heart of national debates around the oft-cited, vacuous concern of the “direction of our country.” Race and religion have been at the center of these national debates.

Just as a reminder, Arizona was admitted as a state in 1912—the last of the “lower 48.” Less than a hundred years before, Arizona was a part of Mexico. Once the United States military occupied Mexico City during the Mexican-American War, the northern portion (including parts of Colorado, California, Arizona, and New Mexico) became United States Territory. Arizona silver mines tempted Eastern entrepreneurs, but “marauding Indians” and the US government’s inefficiency at protecting US citizens concerned these pioneers and stalled their colonial enterprises. In a familiar “Westerner” move, Arizonians blamed the federal government for their local problems and took matters into their own hands. They responded to perceived federal neglect by forming a militia to fight the Apache Indians who raided settlements.

Arizona remained peripheral to the nation’s problems in the years leading up to the Civil War, but the question of Arizona’s slaving holding status again centered national questions on the periphery. During the Civil War, Arizona became part of the confederacy. Pulled into turmoil over 1,000 miles away, the imagined “Arizona” became a site upon which moral debates were enacted and fought.

In the years after the Civil War, former abolitionists (mostly Protestant) turned their reformation energy into assimilating a variety of “new” United States citizens, including former Mexican citizens and particularly southwest Native Americans “tainted” by Catholicism. These reformers were responding to national concerns that the admission of Arizona as a state would change the direction of the country. Thus, assimilation of these non-white Catholics was the highest priority. Arizona again became a threat because of its provinciality.

Once again, Arizona has become the center of national conversation about the direction of our country by the state government’s attempt to take matters into their own hands. Arizona is once an imagined place for the rest of the country to debate moral issues rooted in race, and again, for many Arizona citizens, a place that feels forgotten by the federal government. It is also again a place where religious organizations are attempting to fill a vacuum, although quenching thirst rather than teaching mechanics and agricultural is the guiding principle today.

I welcome your thoughts about the passage of this bill and the response to it as a moment to reflect on the intersection of race, religion, and politics in the American West.

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