U.S. citizens uncertain about Arizona’s new immigration law would do well to remember who has been doing the actual hard labor under the hot desert sun long before Arizona became a state in 1912. Like the rest of the U.S., Arizona was initially Native American land. It used to be part of the Territory of New Mexico. During Lincoln’s administration, Congress made it a separate territory in 1863. Both Arizona and New Mexico have been territories of the U.S. since 1848, following President Polk’s two-year war with Mexico. At that juncture, Arizona had less than 1,000 Hispanics, 4,040 “Indians,” and 2,421 whites. 1848 was the same year the famous Kit Carson rounded up the Navajo with the help of American soldiers and the Ute. After, 8,000 Navajo were forced to undertake the Long Walk to the Bosque Redondo Reservation in New Mexico. The Navajo were permitted to return in 1868, but the Apache continued to resist until the Chiricahua were forcibly relocated to Florida in 1886. Today, more than 14 tribes live on 20 reservations, and Arizona reminds us of Geronimo and Cochise, the great chiefs who fought Indian removals. Although initially sparsely populated, Arizona has been slowly transformed from the wild, unbearably sun-scorched terrain it used to offer residents to the moment the Arizona Biltmore in Phoenix air-conditioned the hotel in 1962. Indeed, the air-conditioner is most responsible for turning Arizona into a tourist destination, enhancing the state’s economic engines in copper, cotton, cattle, citrus, and electronics. Two-thirds of the U.S.’s copper is still mined there, and mining has been king since gold and silver dwindled and electricity gave the metal value in the 1870s.
When mining, cotton, cattle and citrus were introduced, who largely provided the work force? Arizona’s economy has always depended on the region’s minority people for cheap common labor, on Native Americans and on the Spanish-speakers who have lived in the desert long before Mexico won its independence from Spain in 1821. Arizona has always offered more work opportunities than residents can handle, and for that reason it used to welcome and even encouraged Mexicans to cross the border to help upgrade its ranches and farms. That commerce progressively altered Arizona from a suffocating wilderness used by outlaws into a chic, spa-and-golf environment used by movie stars and the rich since Marilyn Monroe lounged at the Biltmore.
That is why Arizona’s recent SB 1070 law is so stunning and incomprehensible. Arizona, of course, is not the only state or part of the country that has relied on immigrant, cheap labor to turn our economies into global world market leaders. Texas, California–name most states or U.S. regions–and economists will tell us that cheap, foreign-hands labor has been in there doing the hard manual work needed to transform society’s infrastructure, promoting and giving visibility to “Progress.” Since many “illegal aliens” historically leave their countries to throw in their fates and the futures of their children with the regions that have employed their skills and talents for generations, isn’t it rather thankless now to disinvite and actually to throw them out of the U.S.? These workers have long survived on pauper’s wages. Our country has labeled them “illegal,” allowing our citizens to pay the “aliens” whatever we have wanted. But since January 1, 2009, Arizonians have had to pay them at least $7.25 per hour of work, too. Illegal workers interviewed by Univision now say that not enough people are hiring them off the curbs where for years they used to be picked up to cut grass, repair homes, and provide other services. How fair is it to use language–to mix our good, reliable workers with “terrorists” and “drug gangsters,” as Arizona’s new immigration law does? What SB 1070 underscores is that whites who voted for it enjoy being domineering.
Marco Portales is a Texas A&M professor and author of Why Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata Wore Cananas: A 100th Year Photo History of the Mexican Revolution, 1910-1928. (Copies available from firstname.lastname@example.org)