Three days ago, President Donald Trump pardoned former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, sparking an immediate media frenzy. (For those still unfamiliar with Arpaio’s violent history working in Maricopa County, Arizona, the Phoenix New Times posted a brilliant, now-viral rundown via Twitter thread).
After reading through the official statement, I found myself capable of doing only two things: appropriately fidgeting with a ring on my finger of a saguaro, which was given to me back home, and calling my parents. As undocumented immigrants who migrated from Mexico to the United States and settled in Phoenix shortly before Arpaio’s first election in 1993, the news fell on them particularly hard.
My father, a small-business owner of 20 years, was going through his own stages of grief and anxiety. “I’ve been a victim of [Arpaio’s] racist policies in Arizona for years, so obviously I’m angry. But I’m afraid too—where does this lead? When does it stop? I’ve felt this way since the beginning of his term as sheriff and every day since the 2016 election results,” he said.
Not surprisingly, sentiments like my father’s are the case for many immigrant families living in the United States, especially with Trump in office who, aside from having a hard-line stance on immigration, has given demeaning statements like, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best.” Personally, growing up in a family with undocumented parents and relatives so close to the border made all aspects of my daily life ridden with anxiety. With the acknowledgement that both my parents were in a vulnerable position, risk assessment quickly became a skill of mine early on. What’s more, I learned to hold my tongue during racist and xenophobic comments; keeping my parents’ status a secret was always best.
Sex. Abortion. Parenthood. Power.
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As a family, we witnessed the introduction and implementation of SB 1070, the 2010 anti-immigrant law known for racially profiling people of color suspected to be living in the country illegally. Throughout my entire upbringing we lived mere miles from Tent City—now set to close—and because the demographic of our neighborhoods were mostly made up of low-income people of color, police presence was everywhere.
Those currently in the White House make the threat of deportation in immigrant communities feel more probable than ever, and a pardon for a criminal like Arpaio does nothing to alleviate that fear. Much like the incendiary statements Trump made well after the events in Charlottesville, the pardon has similarly “ripped the stitches open and salted the wound”—in this case, the immigrant experience in the United States.
Along with reports that Trump will likely end the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which offers some young immigrants relief from deportation and access to a work permit, Arpaio’s pardon after his recent conviction for criminal contempt serves as yet another reminder that the immigrant community is not worth protecting by this administration. I’ve witnessed the myriad ways in which states like Arizona have failed to show solidarity with immigrants and refugees; the treatment of folks at the recent Phoenix protest is a perfect example. Again, the same can be said across the country. As a former community organizer working in Nashville for Tennessee Advocates for Planned Parenthood, our political organization had seen coalition partners like the outstanding Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition go through losses like the withdrawal of pro-immigrant ordinance BL-739 and Immigration and Customs Enforcement raids in Nashville and Memphis.
Trump’s pardon is one direct attack out of many against immigrant communities, and they happen so frequently that it has resulted in frustration and exhaustion. A young friend of mine by the last name of Vargas—for her safety, she gave me permission to use her last name only—gave me her perspective as an undocumented woman able to attend college in Nashville through the DACA program:
Regardless of a person’s status or criminal record, no one should go through what Arpaio did. It was nothing but inhumane. What [Trump] has shown the world is awful, and I’m not sure what to do anymore. I’ve been an activist for years, but at this point, I’m exhausted. I’ve felt my anxiety and depression creeping back into my life, sometimes getting out of bed is near impossible. I’m taking some time away from activism because I just don’t have the energy right now. I wish I had more of a response or reaction, but it’s becoming too much.
Vargas’ response is also indicative of activists who identify as part of the immigrant community. From Standing Rock to Charlottesville to moments like the recent transgender military ban, we have seen Black, brown, indigenous, and queer folks stand in solidarity with one another so often that we wonder when we’ll “catch a break.”
Still, there are truths to hold onto.
Alex Gomez, executive director of Living United for Change in Arizona, was one of many grassroots organizers who led the Phoenix protest outside Trump’s rally on August 22. She put it plainly in an interview with KJZZ Radio afterwards, stating, “Even if there’s a pardon, Arpaio was still found guilty.”
As a queer woman of color with vulnerable family members and friends in the immigrant community, I’ve quickly realized the mindset one has to have while living under a Trump administration. A pardon at the hands of a man who sympathizes with white supremacists is anything but redeeming, and there’s strength to be found in knowing immigrants and their families are on the right side of history.
What’s more, it doesn’t erase the major win we had last November, when hundreds of thousands voted Arpaio out of office after he terrorized the valley for more than 20 years.
And then there’s the hope found in proper solidarity across movements. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, folks from Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ+ community, and the immigrant/refugee community came together across the country in a stand against white supremacy and racism. Given the nature of this pardon, I’m hopeful of a similar outcome.
It’s imperative that marginalized communities continue to stand and take action together, not just because we know what it’s like to live in fear for being our most authentic selves, but because there is no other way toward liberation in the country we call home.
I’ve been chewing on the words my mother had to say after hearing the news that Trump pardoned the former sheriff. She said, “An injustice was made against our community. This man terrorized our streets, our neighborhoods. He’s caused us pain beyond words. I’m disillusioned, pero seguimos luchando (but we press on). We’ve been here before. There is no other option, and I know we’re capable of it.”
It’s true, the pardoning of Joe Arpaio is already beating down on the psyche and livelihood of immigrant families living in and beyond the valley of Phoenix. But if there’s one thing the immigrant community is, it’s resilient.
While sitting here and writing this piece, I can’t help but grab my left bicep where my most recent tattoo is—in honor of my Latinx roots and my favorite song off of Hurray for the Riff Raff’s latest, politically-charged album The Navigator—the word pa’lante (slang for forward). Resiliency is at the very core of every immigrant, and that hasn’t changed with Trump’s pardon. As demeaning and debilitating it has been for millions in the immigrant community to grapple with this decision, Arizona and the rest of the country is prepared to fight back. So am I. Pa’lante.
Please consider donating to organizations I’ve had the privilege to work with that are dedicated to fighting for immigrant rights and justice in Phoenix: