Phoenix Mayor Lashes Out Against Immigration Law

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This weekend, rallies were held across the country calling for an overhaul of a new law in Arizona, SB 1070. The measure makes it a state crime to be in the country without authorization. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon explains opposition to the law, and what it means for residents of Phoenix.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, we have two conversations about Louisiana. First, we talk with New Orleans reporter and columnist Bob Marshall about that oil spill that has already shut down the regional fishing industry. That's followed by a conversation with a local writer for the HBO series "Treme," Lolis Eric Elie. He tells us more about what he hopes this fictional series will do for the real life New Orleans. That's in just a few minutes.

But first, we go to a long-simmering issue that has recently boiled over again: immigration. This weekend, rallies were held across the country calling for an overhaul of the country's immigration system and protesting a new law in Arizona SB 1070. The law makes it a state crime to be in the country without authorization. It steps up law enforcement pressure on those believed to be in the country without authorization.

Many people are outraged by this bill to the point where they have called for a boycott of Arizona. Caught in the middle, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, who's here with us now in our Washington, D.C. studio. Welcome, thank you for joining us.

Mr. PHIL GORDON (Mayor, Phoenix): Thank you.

MARTIN: What brings you to Washington at a time like this?

Mr. GORDON: Well, two things. One is to work with the administration as well as the Justice Department and Homeland Security to let them know how urgent it is to have two immediate movements. One is a lawsuit by the Justice Department to intercede and stop this law from going into effect, which would go into effect in 90 days. Number two is, we need immigration reform comprehensive now and that's a legislative push now, ask the president to please bring this to the front burner.

Meeting with the speaker today, with the majority leader and his staff and her staff today that this has to go forward. The potential for violence is great. Our chief has talked about that. People are in fear now, citizens as well as immigrants. The economic harm not only to the city of Phoenix and the state, but now to the nation as a result of this, with national boycotts being called upon. It is just immense. And now is the time.

MARTIN: And the reason I say you're caught in the middle is that you have been, on this program and you've been an outspoken critic of some of law enforcement efforts aimed at undocumented immigrants. I mean, you have been a strong critic of these, particularly those by one particularly well-known sheriff, Joe Arpaio.

On the other hand, you are the mayor of Phoenix and some of your fellow mayors from around the country, as well as a member of the Arizona's delegation, have called for a boycott of the state, but you're against that. Tell us why.

Mr. GORDON: Yes. But first let me clear I would ask everyone not to judge the actions of Phoenix police by this Sheriff Apaio, who has become an extremist, who definitely has been racially profiling and targeting and discriminating, now and is being investigated criminally by the Justice Department.

We're trying to withstand this flood that is coming by, really, people that have hijacked the political system in Arizona, but it won't stop at the Arizona border. It will it's spilling over now, as you see it in other states. With respect to the issues before us, we have to understand that people are scared and that we need to really act quickly so as not to stop at the boycott.

MARTIN: But why shouldn't people boycott if they feel that this - the state is no longer a welcome environment?

Mr. GORDON: Well, number one, again, I would ask everyone not to judge Arizona and Phoenix with a broad brush just as those extremists are trying to judge all immigrants or anyone of brown or any color skin by the same brush. Number two is the law doesn't go into effect for 90 days. So give us the opportunity to get this enjoined. There are a lot of us working on that, both with the Justice Department, as well as individually so as it won't go into effect.

But let me just be clear, just having an injunction and then the law, which is clearly unconstitutional, determined unconstitutional by the courts, won't be enough. This - we need the immigration policy now, allow a guest worker program that allows individuals to work legally in this country, pay taxes, go back and forth, pursuant to the permit.

And, two, to allow 11 to 12 million individuals that have lived here, in some cases generations, almost all their life fought for this country even, to remain here provided they follow the rules. And, thirdly, fix our immigration policy that rewards the smugglers and the syndicates and the criminals that bring people and drugs across. Because the system, to come here now, it's 10 to 20 year wait. And that's a broken system and that just encourages illegal immigration.

MARTIN: You say give you're asking people to give the system time to work, as you put it. But I think supporters of the bill would argue that the system is working in the sense that the political system is responding to its constituents. The polls show that this bill is extremely popular in Arizona, okay? Recent polls says that some 70 percent of those polled support the bill. It's also popular nationally, that some 51 percent of those polled nationally last week, say they support this bill.

So, by that standard one could argue that the political system is working, because those people have asked their elective representatives to respond, they have done so, and they've done so within the law as they understand it. What would you say to that?

Mr. GORDON: Well, first of all, with respect to the political system responding, the political system is just entrenching. As we know, that tends to be the course no matter what the issue is, is when something that causes such an issue, people entrench themselves. So it really isn't doing anything on that. Secondly, it's hurting those that it's trying to benefit, not only the immigrants, but the citizens of Hispanic origin. Lastly, it's hurting the children and the seniors and it's hurting companies that aren't even Arizona-based, but are employing people or Arizona-based that are employing people throughout the United States that are now being affected. The opportunity is...

MARTIN: But (unintelligible) about that. Can I ask you, what evidence do you have of that? Because one of the interesting through-lines for me has been, as we've been reporting on this, the number of people who say, well, if your paperwork is in order, you have nothing to fear. So, why - what is the case that you're making for why this has broader reach than those who are here without proper authorization?

Mr. GORDON: Well, first of all, the, again, 12 million individuals here are -throughout the United States - serving in areas where American citizens or legal residents aren't filling those needs. Hotel industry, making up rooms, the backrooms of kitchens and restaurants, the fields, picking our very food that we eat. You know, there's not a lot of American citizens that are waiting in line to work the fields of Arizona at 120 degree heat or Texas or the cold up north.

So, it's important labor that's needed and it's also - economically, it's an important economic base at a time when we're trying to recover housing is an example, travel. Secondly, the boycott, again, a good example I read about is the, quote, "Arizona Tea Company," I think it is. It's not Arizona based, it's never been. It's a New York company. It doesn't employ Arizona people and that's being boycotted.

Arizona based companies employ thousands and thousands of people throughout the United States. A good example is the leading manufacturer of batteries for electric cars now, orders are being held up in other states. So those are individuals even on the environment are selling these batteries.

The boycott, I think is certainly a pressure that is being focused on and will help towards a solution, but it's something that can be held as a sword over those racists and those extremists that do control the political system. But, lastly, Michel, let me make a point, this isn't going to be solved in Arizona, whether this law is overturned or at least enjoined, which I'm confident it will be, it's got to be solved nationally. It's a national issue.

Immigration in this country was founded on the principles that the United States government has to have one policy for immigration. We don't want 50 or, in Arizona's case, maybe dozens of different immigration policies.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I'm Michel Martin and you're listening to TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm speaking with Phil Gordon. He is the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona. He's in Washington meeting with legislative leaders and administration leaders about that new - controversial new law in Arizona that steps up law enforcement pressure on those believed to be here without authorization.

Critics are calling the bill - saying that the bill would encourage racial profiling because it requires law enforcement officials to act on a reasonable suspicion that a person is out of status and it also makes it a state crime to be in the country without authorization.

Just as a point of clarification, I don't see any evidence that you mentioned that Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who's become a national an elected sheriff in Pima County has become a national figure for his very tough stance on illegal immigration. You said that he is being investigated criminally. I don't know that, can you clarify that for us? Because as we understand it, he's being evaluated for how he implements federal measures allowing local police to participate in immigration enforcement, but do you have some information that we don't have that this is a criminal matter?

Mr. GORDON: Definitely. There are two investigations going on through Justice. One is...

MARTIN: Forgive me, it's Maricopa County sheriff, I apologize. Thank you.

Mr. GORDON: I was trying to...

MARTIN: Help me out. I appreciate that.

Mr. GORDON: Yeah. The two investigations that are going on right now, there's the civil, out of the civil rights division and hopefully that department will issue the violations in terms of the racial profiling, the targeting, the discrimination. But, also, there's a criminal investigation, one that I called for over two years ago and others that started under the Bush administration, actually.

And so, when people try to make this a Democrat issue, it actually started under the Justice Department and FBI. And there's a grand jury going on in Arizona now calling witnesses regarding his abuse of power, punishing individuals.

MARTIN: Thank you for that clarification. Just, we have a minute and a half left, so, I wanted to end our conversation where it began, is what's the atmosphere in Phoenix and the rest of the state right now? You've just come from there and will be going back shortly. Could you just us a little bit of a sense of - what's it like?

Mr. GORDON: Certainly. Very emotional, very tense. We have people that are terrified to come forward, testify to the police where real criminals are. We have people that are armed now, anarchists coming in from out of state, armed militias, neo-Nazis that actually parade, stand - excuse me, with Sheriff Joe Apaio, Friday when he was endorsing a candidate to run for county attorney. This is the United States. This is Arizona. This is Phoenix. And it's not what this country stands for.

So it's very tense. We need action immediately. We need the public to actually call upon our state, our U.S. senators and representatives throughout the United States, as well as in Arizona to get an immigration policy adopted quickly, and for the federal government to intercede just like they did in the '50s.

MARTIN: And how optimistic are you that that's going to happen? As you know, it's an election year and many people say that passing big legislation in an election year is very difficult to do.

Mr. GORDON: Number one, I'm very optimistic that the Justice Department will intercede. Number two, this is partisanship aside an unbelievable gift that the Republican extremists have given to Democrats to register Hispanics throughout the United States, unite different Hispanic ethnicities and vote, and vote Democratic now.

MARTIN: All right, Phil Gordon is the mayor of Phoenix, Arizona. He was kind enough to stop by our Washington, D.C. studios during his visit to Washington. Phil Gordon, thank you for joining us, Mr. Mayor.

Mr. GORDON: Thank you very much.

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