With the US supreme court upholding SB1070's notorious racial-profiling measure, the immigration reform movement goes local

This week, while some pro-migrant supporters embraced the SB1070 supreme court ruling like a sports victory (three provisions struck down, one to go!), others in Phoenix, Arizona, who were angered that the court upheld the racial profiling provision, protested in front of the federal building of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). As Carlos Garcia of the Puente Movement put it, "Life is worse today for migrants than it was yesterday. Why would we call that victory?"

Outside the federal building they demanded the president answer the moral dilemma posed by SB1070 and cut off all federal deportation co-operation with the state. To their friends and allies watching across the country, they posed the question: will you defend our civil rights or will you be a silent bystander?

The battle in Arizona over immigration has become symbolic of a broader struggle to overcome racial discrimination, mass incarceration, and systemic exclusion in the United States. The supreme court's narrow ruling on constitutional structure left the country still debating the morality of SB1070, while the trial judge begins to grapple with civil rights questions not yet before the high court. Above all, what Arizona represents is a fight over national identity, waged at the local level.

Immigrant communities bearing the brunt of record deportations and detentions are demanding local officials roll back the country's "Arizonification" in their own cities and states. Over the last few years, fights over immigration have become hyper-local, in part because Congress has failed to enact immigration reform, but also because the federal government itself has conscripted local police to enforce broken immigration laws. Through the "secure communities" (S-Comm) deportation program, the Obama administration has, in effect, made every police officer in America an agent of deportation. Just like Arizona's SB1070, the feds' S-Comm program allows police to hunt down immigrants: it opens the door to racial profiling and pre-textual arrests, and it creates a rule of fear.

It turns out the supreme court justices agree. The fact that the court could not tell whether SB1070's notorious racial-profiling provisions conflicts with federal policy (the only question at issue in the case) means federal policy is far too similar to Arizona policy. In essence, the disgraced S-Comm deportation program is the sibling of Arizona's law.

This may all seem confusing because, well, it is. This president and both political parties speak from both sides of their mouths when it comes to immigration – at times, paying lip service to immigrants' contributions to the US and their earned right to remain, while also being relentless enforcers and deporters. Communities that are the daily causalities of this political quagmire are turning to their local governments to alleviate the suffering of the average 1,500 daily deportations. They're asking their officials and elected representatives: which side of history are you on?

A day after the supreme court ruling, the Mayor of Los Angeles endorsed state legislation that would dramatically reduce the state's nearly 31,000 annual deportations under the promise of "No More Arizonas". The California bill, known as the Trust Act (AB 1081), would create a barrier between the police and immigration authorities and could emerge as the antidote to Arizona's SB1070.

In two weeks, immigrant communities from across the country are launching the Restoring Trust campaign to urge local officials to stop co-operating with federal agents in deporting mothers, fathers, students, and workers – undocumented Americans. Already, a number of local governments including Washington, DC and Cook County, Illinois (which includes Chicago) have already adopted policies similar to California's pending Trust Act.

These cities and states are siding with immigrant families by no longer being accomplices in the broken deportation and detention system. They are choosing to restore trust, which is critical to improving crime-reporting and everyone's public safety. There is no doubt that the country needs federal-level immigration reform, rather than a balkanized approach that allows room for hate bills like Arizona's SB1070. But with the lack of leadership and paralysis in Washington, communities are not waiting to turn the tide locally.

© Guardian News and Media 2012

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