Arizona’s Immigrant Law As Seen By A Migrant African

By James Kokulo Fasuekoi – I was born in a relatively small and secluded town in northern Liberia where until the civil war that spurred a mass exodus, only a few ever made it to the outside world. This is because foreign travel is the least thing on the minds of traditional Lorma people, a tribe whose livelihood for generations centered on farming, fishing, hunting and handy work such as the manufacturing of farming implements.

Their settlement begins from the Zorzor-Gizema area and stretches hundreds of kilometres north into upland Voinjama Lofa County; and then hundreds more northeast into the town of Zappa, the Gizema area in the Republic of Guinea.

According to oral and written historical accounts, the Lormas are a resilient group of people and ranks among the country’s tribes known for conquering their enemies during tribal wars in olden times. Old town walls such as the one seen in Yeala are testimony to this tribe’s past war life. Their colony, which lies along the border with Guinea, a country then with the unstoppable battle-ragging warlords like Samori Toure, made the Lormas a perfect target.

Joseph Conrad Wold, an American Lutheran Pastor and one of the few anthropologists who had early contact with the tribe, was fascinated by their life style in many ways. “Stealing is a taboo in Lorma settlement,” and one found guilty of thievery is “punished severely, and sometime by death,” he wrote in his book titled: God’s Impatience in Liberia.”

Evangelist Wold, who admits in his book of spying on secret Lorma tribal rituals, a punishment for which is death for none members, explained further how he was amazed that nothing ever got missing from their house while he and his wife were away whenever they left their doors unlocked, and rushed to neighbouring towns to hold church services for days, sometimes weeks.

In order to understand the tribe’s cultural life, Pastor Wold, as he was popularly known in Gizema in the 1960s, settled in a small village town near Zorzor called Wozi, and conducted a study of the Lorma Tribe that took him almost five years.

Another interesting thing Wold discovered about this tribe is how they respect a “promise,” which he said, is seen as a debt in Lorma land. He notes that if a Lorma promises to help another with farm work for a day (which is common) and fails to keep the promise sometimes due to family matters, that individual would pay his friend the day labour fee of 50 cents (at the time) to compensate for the loss. He further points to the sharp contrast between Lorma culture and that of the West that he came from and argued that unlike the U.S., no one would expect a payback from one who fails to keep a promise.

Until now, the life of the Lorma tribe only evolved around their settlements and the two major events in their life which are the birth of a child, the funeral of one’s mother or father. They value family life and believe one gets a curse if he or she misses the home going of his father or mother. This sort of secluded cultural life prevented Lormas from venturing out into the outside world.

Growing up as a Lorma for that matter till the time I entered college, foreign travel wasn’t a priority in my life, let alone to dream of living in the United States or the deserts of Arizona. But like thousands of Liberians, the country’s 14 years brutal civil war forced me into exile.

The love for natural objects such as mountains by my tribal people is subtle. Even though they took gifts and sacrifices to mountain sites and worshiped them in olden time, Lormas fear mountains deeply and view such environment as hostile ground where elf and evil spirits frequent. This fear is legitimized by the fact that a number of people including teenage boys and girls in the Gizema, Lofa County, region, disappeared under mysterious circumstances during the 60s and 70s but found weeks or months later beneath a mountain. One man, Koiyei, spent more than a year with his captors.

Most of the victims when found, mumbled and complained they suffer memory loss during captivity and could therefore not recount their ordeals. All of them except Old man Koiyei appeared healthy and said they were fed most of the time but could not remember how and by whom.

Coming from such a background, one must understand why I have a phobia connected to mountains and Arizona, the home of the Grand Canyons would be the last place I would want to be. But after a week’s visit to Phoenix, AZ in June 2008, I definitely became fascinated by life in this valley just as Joseph Conrad Wold became with the Lormas.

Within a year, I packed all of my belongings onboard a moving truck, hooked up my Honda Civic and headed to Phoenix AZ. I almost got paralyzed by fear during my third night on the road when I hit the mountainous area of Arizona, Flagstaff and almost changed my mind from continuing the journey, surrounded by cliffs and steep mountains, the equals of which I have never seen in Africa.

No wonder why stories about the disappearances of mountain hikers, most of whom are never seen again abound here.

After I got off at a rest stop and cooled off, I mustered strength, put the fear aside and continued to Phoenix, AZ. However, I still feel terrified about travelling that route. But it seems that frightening experience may again turn to reality soon, that’s if the Arizona’s new SB-1070 anti-immigration law seeking to weed out “illegal aliens” is allowed to take effect in less than two months.

My opposition to this notorious bill isn’t because I fall in the category of “illegal” or what is referred to as “undocumented alien,” it’s because I strongly believe that if the rights of a person or a particular group are hindered by any form without opposition, that automatically put the rights of others into jeopardy.

The controversial Senate Bill 1070, signed last April 23, by Arizona State Governor, Jan Brewer is set to go into effect on July 29, 2010, thus making it a state crime for one to live in the country illegally. The new law requires immigrants as well as citizens to always carry identification cards with them and empowers state police to arrest and detain an alien based on “reasonable suspicion” that the individual is here “illegally.”

The new bill has spurred heated debate here in Arizona and the entire U.S. and beyond, with series of protest rallies, the largest which took place here on the grounds of the capitol in Phoenix, Arizona May 29, 2010 with the participation of about 30,000 people, according to the local media.

A local television station even reported last month that aliens found without Green Cards would be arrested, prosecuted and deported to their country of origin. This, for example, is one of the reasons why I personally have serious reservation about the SB-1070.

If the above statement by the TV station is true, then it seems to me that the SB-1070 is loaded with flaws and that may potentially expose the police to endless law suits.

In the first place, Governor Jan Brewer and her SB-1070 team must understand that not all legal aliens or immigrants living in the U.S. including Arizona hold Green Card or bear U.S. citizenship. This is because U.S. Immigration Laws don’t require aliens i.e., asylees to assume such a status, although it is beneficial and is left to individual discretion. So, in my case as an asylee, can I get arrested for not holding a U.S. Green Card even though I am here legally?

Secondly, I will personally feel offended by any law, no matter which part of the world I live, that compares me to always carry IDs such as passports and other forms of IDs if not only for identification purposes during a traffic stop. That’s because such idea tends to torment my mind as a victim of a brutal African civil war.  It brings flash back for once while fleeing from war in Liberia, my family and I were forced to live at a college in rural Liberia guarded by heavily armed rebels where we were required to always display our identity in the chest.

People were singled out, based on ethnic affiliation and murdered before our eyes during our war and I think this draws a close parallel as regard what is happening here in Arizona where the new SB-1070 seeks to target a particular group or the minority. The only difference compare to what occurred in Liberia in the 90s to the situation in Arizona is that SB-1070 violators would eventually be deported back home and not have their heads cut off like Liberians. Thank God for the U.S. and for freedom.

Opponents to the new law argued the bill seeks to discriminate against minority and will lead to racial profiling. They also think it may open avenues for abuse by an already aggressive police viewed by many as being unsympathetic to undocumented residents. And for a state well known for introducing and enforcing controversial radical racial laws, many opponents view this latest move as a continuation of Arizona’s racial policy practiced from states level down that has remained dormant in the closet for years.

It is reported that during the 80s, Republican State Governor, Evan Mecham repealed the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Holiday amidst public outcry which cost the state millions of dollars in both government and private business sectors due to similar mass boycott of the state like the present.

Lately, there have been persistent reports of an increase in human and drug trafficking in the state especially around the capital, Phoenix. This has prompted continued police raids targeting dropped houses in and around Phoenix.

Police here estimate there are 460,000 “illegal immigrants” in the state of Arizona. Of this figure, according to local news reports, about 100,000 undocumented immigrants have left Arizona in the last two years due to earlier crackdowns and the bad economy.

While the state’s move may sound legitimate, critics see the new bill as being too harsh and believe it would do little to accomplish what the fed has failed to achieve for more than half a century.

The new law has created a furor amongst people of this beautiful Grand Canyons state and Americans in general. While protesters vented their emotions and shouted calls to U.S. Congress to block this new law Saturday, about 3,500 rival supporters of the same bill, staged a counter-rally nearby in the University Town of Tempe. Their reason, to spare and protect the state of Arizona, known as the “kidnapped capital” of the world, of further crimes such as drugs and human trafficking, crimes attributed to “illegal” residents which isn’t true according to police statistics.

For now, no one can predict how this will all end. But two things will be obvious when the end arrives. First, the divisiveness it will have nurtured plus the effects of the present mass boycott by states will have far-reaching implication on the state’s fragile economy than imagined.

However, in a show of moral solidarity, I personally suspended every other activity and led my troupe, the African Cultural Ambassadors to last Saturday, May 29th rally in downtown, Phoenix, AZ. My group’s presence at that historic mass protest united us with the Hispanic community which finds itself at the forefront of challenging the new law here in Arizona. The African Cultural Ambassadors was the only group from the entire African refugee community in Arizona, and one of few black groups among thousands of people with Hispanic roots.

Already, a mass boycott of the state by civil rights activists across the country, particularly officials of the state of California which has large business dealings with Arizona, is taking a toll on the state’s already troubled economy. It may reach a breaking point if the boycott continues till July 29th.

What caught many people’s attention was the fact that opponents of the bill refused to use public facilities that would put money into Arizona State’s revenue and instead rented hotels and dine out at restaurants owned by people and agencies that supported their cause. Similarly, SB-1070 supporters bragged about their financial spending and stayed at locations owned by the state and their supporters as a way to help defuse the negative publicity SB-1070 is causing the state.

On the other hand, the issue has created a huge cloud of fear for those planning a visit to Arizona. Many Americans, especially those of colour (foreign look) and Hispanic origins are sceptical about visiting Arizona, fearing they could be mistaken for illegal and harassed or jailed.

“I was also going to give a graduation speech in Arizona this weekend, but with my accent, I was afraid they would try to deport me,” joked California Governor, Arnold Schwarzenegger according to May 24, 2010 edition of Time magazine. The governor made this remark when he recently delivered a commencement speech at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

One of Africa’s most popular movie stars, Ghanaian-Liberian born Van Vicker, like most American Talk Show hosts, stirred a large audience of both Africans and Americans here in Phoenix at the weekend by employing similar joke.

“I was scared when my manager said we were coming to Phoenix ….with the new immigration law, I was worried that I would be arrested,” he said, sending a wild and enthusiastic audience laughing.

While the fear of both men with foreign origin may sound as a joke, it certainly point to the dilemma of not only people of Hispanic origin, but also aliens in general including Africans with accented English tongue who are in the U.S. legally. And that’s why I personally felt disappointed when members of the African refugee community failed to show up for the May 29th rally to demand the Obama’s Administration to block the new law.

A Liberian adage that a “Town trap [meaning, a trap set up in the town] isn’t for rat alone,” is true in a sense. Today, many see SB-1070 as being directed at “illegal” “undocumented” whatever “aliens.” After that, whose turn will it be tomorrow…black Americans? What about foreign legal residents? Is it possible for one to undo any act of humiliation by the police prior to reaching the point where the police realizes you are a legal resident?

From all indications, foreigners/Africans who reside within the state of Arizona who do not see the need to hold a Green Card or bear U.S. citizenship are at greater risk of being humiliated directly or indirectly by such cruel law. There is the likelihood they may become direct victims of prejudice due to cultural factors such as identifiable marks on the body, traditional outfits, and tribal languages.

Although in its latest June 14, 2010 edition Time Magazine in an article about Arizona border crisis expressed pessimism that “SB1070 will do little to solve the problem at the border. Indeed, it may only make the problem worse,” I am optimistic that the border issue requires a comprehensive immigration reform and not a law like the SB-1070 that target minority groups.

Whatever the case, on arrival here, one gets quite fascinated by the breathtaking sprawling gulf communities everywhere, complemented by beautiful mountain views. And do you know of any U.S. city that is cleaned freak? Well, come to Phoenix, AZ.  In fact, the Sky Harbour International Airport in Phoenix few months ago won first place as the number one U.S. cleanest airport.

And then one get the feel and enjoys the diversity of various cultures such as Mexican, Irish, Italian, Native American Indian, Jewish and African that makes one like me wants to stay here forever if not for a discriminating law like SB1070.

Cultural life is so friendly and promising here in Arizona that my group has been pinned down with cultural performances almost every month since its formation last October, with one held at my former college, Phoenix College while two took place at the prestigious Arizona State University (ASU) campus, thus far exceeding the numbers of cultural shows I took part during my 10 year stay in Pennsylvania and Georgia. The last performance held at the main campus of ASU was an open-air drum concert in Tempe at which time close to 40 candidates from the university’s African Studies Department received honours and degrees ranging from bachelor to doctorate.

A professor and head of the African Studies Department, who led the 40 member drum concert which also included women, told the audience that members of his group had toured West Africa, mainly, Nigeria, Ghana and Senegal, practicing various drum rhythms in order to qualify for graduation, something that touched me as an African artist.

Prior to the ceremonies, the three groups, the Ambassadors, Kawambe and the graduating class as well as some members of the public,  held weeks of joint intense cultural rehearsals at the Eastlake Gym in downtown Phoenix, sharing dances and drumming from several ethnic background in West Africa.

Amidst the chaos, as I prepare to leave Arizona with my family for the unknown, I feel greatly disappointed and of course worried about one thing: What impact will the new SB-1070 have on this cultural heaven, Arizona? And whether SB-1070 succeeds or not, what will cultural life look like afterwards? Will the present rich cultural atmosphere continue to flourish as I have seen since I arrived here something that helped healed us refugees from our terrible war traumas? What will happen?

*Author James Kokulo Fasuekoi is a freelance reporter-photographer, cultural artist and a native of Liberia, West Africa. A former Associated Press stringer stationed in West Africa for many years, Mr. Fasuekoi has published two photo documentary books on Liberia and Sierra Leone’s Civil Wars.