This article is published in partnership with The Media Consortium, of which RH Reality Check is a member organization.
The Tucson shooting that left Representative Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) critically wounded and 6 others dead last Saturday wasn’t explicitly motivated by Arizona’s polemical stance on immigration. Nevertheless, the tragedy bears a number of weighty implications for immigration issues both in Arizona and across the nation.
Contextualizing political violence
Pima county sheriff Clarence Dupnik was among the first to discuss the shooting within the context of Arizona’s heated immigration battles. In several television appearances, he characterized the tragedy as a product of hatred and intolerance, telling reporters during one press conference that Arizona has “become the Mecca for prejudice and bigotry.” Many on the right, including Senator Jon Kyl, were quick to admonish Dupkin for needlessly politicizing a national tragedy.
But, as Care2’s Jessica Pieklo argues, the sheriff’s contentiously moderate stance on immigration makes him uniquely positioned “to shine a critical light on the fevered political rhetoric that has enveloped his state and this country.” While Dupnik has spoken out against Arizona’s SB 1070, engendering the goodwill of immigrant rights advcoates, he has also argued that schools should check the immigration statuses of students, a position endorsed by the anti-immigrant right. Given his varied stance on the issues, it’s difficult to dismiss his characterization of the tragedy as some kind of party-line pandering. Rather, his statement seems an objective assessment of Arizona’s volatile political culture—made all the worse by increasingly fierce immigration debates.
And as Dupnik probably well knows, that volatile political culture has repeatedly coalesced into political violence over the past 20 years. Following the shooting, the immigrant rights group Alto Arizona produced an interactive timeline of Arizona’s long history of violence. As ColorLines’ Jamilah King notes, this troubling history has frequently centered on explosive immigration issues, from Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s lawlessness to murders committed by Arizona Minutemen.
Tragedy leaves gaps in immigration debate
The attack on Rep. Giffords, as well as her subsequent absence from Congress, raises a number of concerns about the direction of immigration policy in 2011. While some immigrant rights groups maligned her broad support of increased border enforcement, Giffords nevertheless stood out as one of few Arizona legislators who also broadly supported immigrant rights. John Rudolph at Feet in 2 Worlds points out that she represented an important border district, supported the DREAM Act, and opposed SB 1070. And as a result of the shooting, Rudolph argues, Giffords’ pivotal voice “has been sidelined at a time when moderate voices are desperately needed.”
Unfortunately, Giffords wasn’t the only shooting victim whose voice could have critically altered immigration politics in Arizona. Federal judge John Roll, who was killed during the shooting, had been overseeing the court case challenging Arizona’s recently enacted ethnic studies ban, HB 2281. The anti-immigrant measure, which specifically targets the Tucson Unified School District’s Mexican American Studies program, went into effect only days before Roll’s death—an unsettling coincidence, particularly as Roll’s judicial career has repeatedly landed him in the center of explosive immigration battles.
New America Media reports that Roll became a target of political violence as recently as 2009, when he allowed 16 undocumented Mexican immigrants to go forward with a $32 million lawsuit against a vigilante Arizona rancher with a reputation for rounding up immigrants. The case provoked such ire from conservatives (ranging from phone calls to death threats) that Roll and his wife required 24-hour protection from one month.
There’s no word yet on how the case against HB 2281 will proceed, or on the length of Rep. Giffords’ anticipated absence from Congress.
Shooting underscores Republican division
Meanwhile, mounting fear of Arizona’s violent political culture has crossed party lines—taking hold of state Republicans who fear that Tea Party extremists will target them for being too moderate. Four Republican politicians representing Arizona’s Legislative District 20 have resigned from office following the shooting on Saturday, Lauren Kelley reports at Alternet. The first to go, chairman Anthony Miller, said that he has faced “constant verbal attacks” from Tea Party members angry over Miller’s deciion to support Sen. John McCain’s (R-AZ) campaign over that of the avowedly anti-immigrant J.D. Hayworth. Soon after Miller announced his resignation, three other Republican officials followed suit: secretary Sophia Johnson, first vice chairman Roger Dickinson and district spokesman Jeff Kolb.
Their resignations highlight growing divisions within the Republican Party over the increasingly extremist positions of certain party leaders, especially in Arizona. Since state senator Russell Pearce and a cohort of other legislators introduced their birthright citizenship bill last week—which would deny citizenship to the U.S.-born children of unauthorized immigrants—various elements of the Party have spoken out against the radical nature of the measure. Change.org’s Alex DiBranco reports that Somos Republicans, an organization representing a minority of Hispanic Republicans, are decrying party leaders’ use of the slur “anchor baby” as well as their “unholy alliance” with the Federation of Americans for Immigration Reform (FAIR), an anti-immigrant group. New America Media’s Valeria Fernández and Elena Shore similarly report that a contingent of conservative religious leaders have also come out in strong opposition of the measure, arguing that the bill defies “the teachings of Jesus Christ” and the “values of America.”
Clearly, while the Tucson tragedy silenced measured voices critical to Arizona’s immigration debates, it has also compelled many members of the right to reconsider the radical positions of their fellows—especially on the volatile issue of immigration.