Tucson Shooting Reshapes Explosive Immigration Debate

Catherine Traywick

The Tucson shooting bears a number of weighty implications for immigration issues both in Arizona and across the nation.

This article is published in partnership with The Media Consortium, of which Rewire 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.

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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.

News Politics

#SitInForThe49 Protesters Demand Gun Safety, Equality, and End to Community Violence (Updated)

Tina Vasquez

Protesters are demanding action from Sen. Marco Rubio and “all elected officials who have contributed to the discrimination and violence” that plagues communities of color, according to a press release.

UPDATE, July 12, 9:42 a.m.: After spending nearly ten hours at Sen. Marco Rubio’s Orlando office, ten sit-in participants were arrested, according to local news reports. Monivette Cordeiro of Orlando Weekly reported that those arrested were released from police custody as of Tuesday morning.

UNITE HERE, a national labor organization committed to LGBTQ rights, launched a sit-in on Monday at Republican Sen. Marco Rubio’s Orlando, Florida office.

The 49-hour sit-in in the atrium of his office building seeks to honor the 49 predominantly Latino victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting and demand action from Rubio and “all elected officials who have contributed to the discrimination and violence” that plagues communities of color, according to a UNITE HERE press release.

In the month since the deadly mass shooting “opportunist political leaders” have done nothing to help the communities most affected by the attack, UNITE HERE said in the press release. The “No Fly No Buy” legislation, pushed by Democrats that would bar gun sales to people on a government terrorist watch list, only “employs racial profiling and fails to address the most urgent needs of marginalized communities,” it added.

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On behalf of the inaction of politicians to address issues affecting queer and trans communities of color, those participating in the #SitInForThe49 have a list of demands related to gun safety, equality, and community violence. At the top of the list is a call for lawmakers to reject financial contributions from the National Rifle Association and implement universal background checks. Protesters also want lawmakers to enact legislation making it a crime to “knowingly import, sell, manufacture, transfer, or possess a semiautomatic assault weapon or large capacity ammunition-feeding device.”

The victims of the Pulse nightclub shooting, almost all of whom were queer people of color and many of whom were immigrants and undocumented, already suffered from discrimination because of their identities, poverty wages, and an unjust immigration system, according to UNITE HERE. That is why protesters are demanding “not only an end to hateful rhetoric and policies that perpetuate racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, and xenophobia, but the passage of a fully-inclusive national LGBTQ+ nondiscrimination law and comprehensive immigration reform,” UNITE HERE explained in the press release.

Lastly, those participating in the sit-in are calling for lawmakers to end police brutality and develop “a transparent database of law enforcement activities, repeal mandatory-minimums for non-violent drug offenses, and institute after-school programs, living wage jobs, and accessible higher education to cultivate brighter futures” for community members.

Rubio, who has received endorsements from the National Rifle Association (NRA) and conservative leaders opposed to LGBTQ rights, cited the Pulse nightclub shooting as the reason he was re-entering the run for re-election to the Senate, months after stating he would not run.

“Sen. Rubio claims he is ‘deeply impacted’ by last month’s Pulse Nightclub Shooting, yet he continues to terrorize Orlando’s LGBTQ+ communities of color by adhering to a platform of so-called ‘conservative values‘ which discriminates, dehumanizes, and denies access to the American dream,” said UNITE HERE.

Responding to the news of the sit-in, Sen. Rubio’s office said in a statement to Rewire: “Senator Rubio respects the views of others on these difficult issues, and he welcomes the continued input he is receiving from people across the political spectrum.”

Michelle Suarez, one of the protesters participating in the sit-in told Rewire that as an immigrant and a Latina, she felt it was important to join the sit-in because a bulk of those killed in the nightclub shooting were Latino and she wants to stand with her community. Seeing people become politicized has been a bright spot, she said, and she’s hopeful that things will “one day change” for the communities most impacted by the shooting, but the activist told Rewire she is disappointed in politicians whose politics disenfranchise communities of color.

“Marco Rubio has said he’s for the Latino community and when the shooting happened, he made a statement saying he was impacted, but the reality is that his voting record and the money he receives from the NRA and his platform of so-called ‘conservative values’ is what continues discrimination against our communities,” Suarez said.

“If politicians won’t do anything for us, we need people to start organizing and strategizing for reform. We can not tolerate the racism, homophobia, transphobia, Islamophobia, or xenophobia. We hope this sit-in unites people and inspires them to organize.”

Commentary Violence

The Orlando Massacre Response Must Not Obliterate the Realities of LGBTQ People of Color

Katherine Cross

Even in the wake of violent death, the reality of our community is erased. Omar Mateen's actual motives, the lives and very names of the dead, and the realities of gay, queer, and trans people of color who yet live are obliterated under a bigoted yearning for more brutality.

The thumbnail image of a news piece posted on my Facebook timeline was just a Puerto Rican flag. As soon as I saw it, I knew what the headline would be: “Over half of the dead in Orlando were Puerto Rican.” Upon seeing what I was looking at, my partner wordlessly swaddled me in one of her best hugs, the kind that could keep the whole world at bay, breaking upon her strong back like a tide. Though Latinxs are often stereotyped as uniquely patriarchal, we nurse large and thriving queer communities in the tenement houses, projects, and barrios of this nation, in the shadows of broader stereotypes about who LGBTQ people are and what we look like.

Until I came out, I never knew that my old aunt Iris had several trans woman friends who often came to her home to drink, laugh, and smoke. Her acceptance of me was mirrored by much of my wider family, the same people who might seem gauche to middle-class whites who imagine themselves so much more tolerant and might pity me for my ancestry. When I think about the fact that it was precisely Latinx LGBTQ people—those often hidden by the mainstream—who fell to Omar Mateen’s bullets, numbness takes hold. Its grip tightens when I see that even in the wake of violent death, the reality of our community is erased, save for a few comprehensive news reports sprinkled amidst the unending grind of rolling news’ speculations and non-updates.

What leaves me without breath is when that erasure is the first part of a larger gesture that asks us to lay this crime at the feet of the whole of Islam and anyone who might be thought to belong to it. In the wake of this demand, Mateen’s actual motives, the lives and very names of the dead, and the realities of gay, queer, and trans people of color who yet live are obliterated under a bigoted yearning for more brutality.

This tragedy joins many others that have taken place over the last decades. What these crimes all share is less a religious motive than a hateful, fearful one, which manifests in the profound violation of open, welcoming spaces that model a pluralistic society.

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How these acts of mass violence are framed says a lot. I needn’t cite any examples of Omar Mateen being called a terrorist; the word has become like the air we now breathe, inescapable in its consensus usage. From random tweets to the words of powerful leaders and writers, Orlando has become an act of “terrorism” by dint of the shooter’s name alone, in the midst of a discourse where the appellation “terror” is only applied to the political violence of self-professed Islamists.

But what is terrorism if not politically motivated violence? Why, then, is Thomas Mair, who was arrested for the murder of Labour Member of Parliament Jo Cox just last week, already being painted as a “loner,” with the word “terrorism” conspicuous by its absence? The lips of the British elite seem unable to pronounce it, suddenly. Eyewitnesses suggest the handgun Mair allegedly wielded looked homemade—a craft he might have learned from a handbook he purchased from the neo-Nazi National Alliance, of which he was a longtime supporter.

In Mateen’s case, meanwhile, much has been made of his claim to support Daesh in his final phone call during the attack. Though details of the case continue to emerge, a more thorough look at his history suggests a more mundane explanation for this: Like so many of the shooters in these types of crimes, he seems to have sought to puff himself up and make himself appear more frightening, if only for the sake of his ego. Indeed, some investigators now suggest that he made his widely discussed Daesh pledges simply to ensure more media coverage, a strategy that some in the press have rewarded by posthumously crowning him a “jihadi.” His past flirtations with expressing meaningless support for Hezbollah and al-Qaeda would tell anyone well acquainted with foreign affairs just how confused this man was; those two organizations and Daesh are all enemies motivated by different types of extremism.

If we are to take the concern trolls at their word and have a “serious conversation” about Islam in the wake of this massacre, then we should critically examine how knowledgeable and pious Mateen actually appeared to be.

Mateen committed his killing during the holy month of Ramadan, a time when observant Muslims typically refrain from even uttering swear words, much less killing; there is no evidence he was fasting in observance of Ramadan, either; Pulse patrons say Mateen was a drunkard who became belligerent and had to be ejected more than once, but alcohol is forbidden to practicing Muslims.

Just as I felt my Latinx queer community rendered invisible in the wake of its own tragedy, so too do I empathize with the many queer and LGBT Muslims who feel the same way—their sexuality, their genders, their piety washed away by the caricature of Mateen that has emerged in recent days.

Mateen’s motivations seem to have been, based on available evidence, garden-variety self-loathing and prejudice inflected by violent, masculine, and homophobic demands placed upon him. A former colleague described Mateen as making so many racist and homophobic remarks that he complained to his superiors about the matter—who promptly did absolutely nothing.

Perhaps Mateen felt hatred and envy for those who appeared to live without the internal conflicts he had; perhaps his own noted racism against other people of color played into his choice of target. What seems clear, from his time in a police academy, to his love of NYPD shirts, to the fact that his job at the time of the shooting was working as an armed security guard for G4S, is that Mateen sought to affiliate himself with entities that often demonstrate strength and inspire fear, as a way of making up for his own inadequacies and quashing any self-loathing over his sexuality. His pledge to Daesh in his final moments appears to have been, then, less a statement of religious belief than his final way of pathetically latching himself onto another gaggle of armed strongmen in an attempt to make himself seem more frightening, more manly. His boast about having known the Boston Marathon bombers, which the FBI later found to be empty, can be understood in the same way.

All the same, the portrait of Mateen as a pathetic wannabe-badass-cum-possible-closet-case should not individuate his crime. He was born and raised in the same United States that brings the homophobia and transphobia of many violent men to a boil. None of the people who have literally threatened gun violence against trans women using washrooms this year were Muslim (many were ostentatiously Christian, as it happens). This is, after all, the year of North Carolina’s HB 2; that is part of the context in which this mass killing must be understood, in which this murder has now become a one-word threat issued by plenty of non-Muslim homophobes. Take, for example, this man in New York who, upon being kicked out of a gay club promised “I’m going to come back Orlando-style!” The cultural issue here is not Islam as a faith, but men who feel that any slight must be avenged by mass violence.

Yet beyond this, we must return to the streets of Britain, where makeshift memorials for Jo Cox are blossoming as I write this. She was killed as she was leaving her constituency surgery—a kind of public, face-to-face meeting with the people she represents that is both a requirement and tradition of MPs in the UK. All and sundry could come to her and discuss their views, grievances, and problems. Such events are free and open to the public, lightly guarded, and easily accessible by design.

They appear to be the polite, respectable mirror image of a gay club’s beats and grinds, but both sites speak to something about our aspirations as a liberal democratic society: pluralism and openness. Much has been written about gay bars and clubs as shelters from a hateful world; they are our little utopias amidst the chaos of our times, a brief flash of what we would like to see and feel everywhere: safe, accepted, in community, loved as ourselves. The constituency surgery, meanwhile, is an attempt at correcting the signature failing of representative democracy, providing a forum for people to speak directly to their elected officials and influence their government.

Each in its way is an innovation athwart darker times and darker impulses, a way of building community through trust and openness. This, too, was at the heart of Mother Emanuel in Charleston, South Carolina, and the prayer meeting that welcomed in a young and listless white stranger a year ago this month; the people Dylann Roof killed had accepted him into their spiritual home for prayer and healing, had placed their trust in a stranger, and invited him to join them, unguarded and without fear.

All three places—the surgery, the church, and the gay nightclub—were paragons of openness and trust, open to all who observed only a most basic compact of decency and tolerance. All three were shattered by the overflowing hatred of men who needed to write their will in someone else’s blood.

It is actually true that our democratic societies face a mortal threat, but it does not come from Islam. It overwhelmingly comes from within: the unchecked entitlement and easily stoked rage of rudderless men who keep being told that women, people of color, and queers are taking something away from them that they need to violently reclaim. They believe they are entitled to a birthright that immigrants and refugees, LGBTQ people and religious minorities, are pilfering from them.

We should open society further in response. For instance, we can do that by eliminating these divisive and prejudicial bathroom bills and allowing LGBTQ people to fully participate in society by protecting them from discrimination in all areas. Or, for that matter, increasing support for victims of domestic violence while identifying and rehabilitating abusers before they do worse might also go a long way toward preventing this from happening again.

The open and pluralistic society that many of us dream of is under threat from men with guns who feel that violence is the only way to solve their problems, making a public tragedy of their internal traumas. If we allow our focus to drift to Islam, we shall only hasten that demise: a dramatically upscaled version of the bigot’s extroverted suicide that must claim the lives of innocents even as we destroy our own.