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Navarrette: Documentary on Ariz. law doesn’t tell the whole story

POSTED: January 26, 2014 12:28 a.m.

SAN DIEGO — Documentaries are serious business, and a new film for public television about Arizona’s regressive immigration law follows that script — for the most part.

It saves the comedy for the end. At least I hope the ending was a joke. Anyone who pays attention to the immigration debate might laugh out loud.

“The State of Arizona” — which airs on the PBS series “Independent Lens” on Jan. 27 — documents some of what led up to the mean-spirited decision by the Arizona Legislature in 2010 to approve SB 1070, which all but required the ethnic profiling of Latinos as part of a statewide hunt for illegal immigrants. Local and state police were roped into enforcing federal immigration law.

The results were disastrous. Local cops found it difficult to surgically apprehend illegal immigrants — most of them Latino — without hassling U.S.-born Latinos. In Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, Sheriff Joe Arpaio sent deputies to raid fast-food joints because someone heard Spanish in the kitchen.

What happened in Arizona was complicated. But for Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini, the co-producers and co-directors, it’s a simple story of villains and heroes. The villains are three Republican elected officials — Arpaio, Gov. Jan Brewer, and former state Sen. Russell Pearce, who authored the law. The heroes are the immigrants who fight back by becoming politically active and registering voters.

“They were ready for the fight,” Sandoval told me.

Sandoval and Tambini seem earnest. I just wish the two New York-based filmmakers had done more investigating, tapped more sources and conducted more research. They needed to get beyond their liberal politics and think outside the box. They might have found what I discovered in writing about the law since 2010, and while working as a reporter for The Arizona Republic in Phoenix in the late 1990s: The best part of the immigration story is the complexity.

Where are the interviews with Mexican-Americans who live along the U.S.-Mexico border in southern Arizona and support the law because they think that drug violence is out of control, and that illegal immigration has to be curtailed?

Where is the expose of Arizona Democrats, many of whom either hid under their desks while the bill was being debated or made excuses for their Republican colleagues? When a recall effort was launched against Pearce, who was at the time president of the Arizona Senate, state Sen. Kyrsten Sinema — a Democrat who has since been elected to Congress — told organizers that she couldn’t support them because the Republican was her “boss.” Cozy.

Where is the credit for those Republicans who opposed the law, from former Gov. Fife Symington and former Attorney General Grant Woods to the members of the chambers of commerce who helped cut off oxygen to the legislation and paved the way for the legal challenge and the Pearce recall?

Where is the history? Immigration didn’t come to Arizona by accident. In 1994, President Bill Clinton — eager to prove that a Democrat could be macho in combating illegal immigration — launched “Operation Gatekeeper” to reinforce the U.S.-Mexico border near San Diego, and hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants on their way to California took a detour through Arizona. Many of them stuck around because employers were hiring.

We don’t get that in the documentary. We get comedy. As the film closes, captions explain that, in response to the law, Latinos voted in record numbers in the 2012 election. And 71 percent of them voted for President Barack Obama, “who campaigned on immigration reform.”

Finally, about these Latino voters, the captions insist: “Their show of strength changed the political landscape. Pushing immigration reform to the forefront of the national agenda.”

Cue laughter. Really?

First, immigration reform is not on the forefront of any national agenda. That’s a feel-good fantasy. Both parties spent the last year playing dodge ball around the issue.

Next, if you say that Obama “campaigned” on immigration reform, shouldn’t you mention that during his first term — and now, a year into his second — he broke his campaign promise?

Finally, why would any self-respecting Latino voter who supports immigration reform brag about helping to re-elect Obama? This is the same guy who thanked Latinos for their support by deporting nearly 2 million people, most of them Latino, and widely expanding the federal program known as Secure Communities, which — similar to the Arizona law — ropes local cops into enforcing immigration law.

This is a powerful film, and it’s worth watching. It’s a good story. It’s just not the whole story.

Ruben Navarrette is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group.


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