The filmmakers that brought you the Sundance Film Festival award-winning film Farmingville, bring you another riveting documentary. Produced and directed by Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini, The State of Arizona highlights the turbulent battle over illegal immigration that came to a head with Senate Bill 1070, also known as the “papers please” law. This compelling documentary follows Arizonans on all sides of this divisive issue – activists, politicians, Latino immigrants, and others – as America eyes the results.
What inspired you to tell the story of Arizona and the controversial immigration law SB1070?
We made the film “Farmingville” a few years before about a small town on Long Island dealing with the effects of undocumented workers living and seeking work in the community. While we were making that film, Glenn Spencer, President of American Border Patrol, and who we were filming said that the next frontier for immigration was Arizona and that’s where he was headed. He subsequently bought a ranch in Arizona along the border and the Minute Men sprang up. Farmingville was a small town in New York where it seemed the anti-immigration forces were testing out their strategies. Arizona was an entire state to put those new strategies into effect. We had both been following events in Arizona such as Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s controversial “crime suppression operations” or community raids, depending on which side of the issue you were on. When the bill was passed by the legislature and the provision that would codify racial profiling caused such an outrage we really took note. Then Governor Brewer signed an amended version of SB1070 into law and we decided we’d go and see if there was a film there for us to make.
As a Latino, I felt our community was being put at risk by the language in the bill as it passed the legislature. It was codified racial profiling. But it also felt like a cry for help from the people of Arizona. I felt this could be a transformational moment for Latinos in America. And it was.
The documentary is a comprehensive illustration of both sides of the story. What was your approach to representing both sides?
Respectful, open and engaged listening. If our goal was going to be to create a space where people can talk and be heard, we knew we had to listen. So we approached our subjects with that objective in mind. We wanted to show all sides of the debate from the perspective of real people truly living it, so we actively sought individuals who were the embodiment of the many perspectives of this complex debate.
Don’t get us wrong, objectivity shouldn’t mean a lack of passion or commitment. The opposite. It means caring meaningfully enough about the issue to check yourself, whether behind the camera or in the edit room, and to respect the people who let you enter their lives.
The subjects in the film are very candid with their opinions and emotions towards their stance on SB1070 and immigration. How did you manage to build rapport and gain access with the opposing communities?
We were lucky enough to meet Danny Ortega of NCLR. Danny had just been a panelist on a screening of “A Class Apart”, which raised our creds with him. He knew, and was a part of the people working day-after-day to stop SB1070. Danny’s introduction and the fact that we had made “Farmingville” gave us incredible and immediate access to the pro-immigrant rights side of the debate.
Still we were filmmakers from New York and had to earn the trust of those we wanted to film and it took quite a while. This process was compromised by the fact that there were so many events to cover in the initial phase of shooting that it got in the way of deepening rapport with any one person. But by showing up at every event, people recognized that we were in for the long haul.
The pro-SB1070 side was a little harder to crack. Because we were there for so long and went to everything we could, we began to see the same faces. Our big day for the pro-SB1070 side came when we encountered Kathryn Kobor and her friends on the grounds of the Arizona Capitol picketing. They spoke with us. We ran into Kathryn again on the steps of the Supreme Court and after that she allowed us to come to her home. We were very fortunate that she was so warm and welcoming to us. She served us lots of iced tea in the Arizona heat.
Russell Pearce, the architect of SB1070, was another case where attending events and being seen by him eventually gained his trust. One of our production assistants, Brian Thomas, was with us when we filmed Senator Pearce at a Tea Party convention. It turned out that Senator Pearce had been Brian’s Pop Warner coach for baseball when he was a kid. After that we had an easier time connecting with the Senator, who we came to respect for the sincerity of his convictions, even as we disagreed with them.
What do you feel was the most under-reported issue surrounding immigration in Arizona when you first began working on The State of Arizona? Has that changed since?
How long and how profoundly things had been festering in Arizona and what it meant to build a regime aimed at getting people to self-deport. In the years leading up to SB1070 there were a lot of laws aimed at the immigrant community, a number of which swept in Latinos who are US citizens or legal residents like so much collateral damage. No driver licenses for undocumented people. English only. No papers, no notarizing of documents. No in-state tuition. Arizona became a laboratory for these laws.
Then in 2011 the legislature proposed new laws targeting undocumented people. One took aim at the 14th Amendment’s guarantee of citizenship for people born in the US. Others proposed tough measures like reporting undocumented children in schools and people who came to hospitals. That turned out to be the tipping point. When – as a result of the boycott organized against Arizona – the business community stepped up and said, “No more, you’re damaging our state by passing all these laws.” Whereas protesters had failed to get legislators’ attention, the Chambers of Commerce did.
There haven’t been any more anti immigrant laws passed in Arizona since SB1070. As someone pointed out recently, it was as if the fever that reached its pitch in Arizona broke in Arizona. This isn’t to say things have turned around completely. Provisions of 1070 remain in effect; record numbers of people are being deported under the Obama administration. But the avalanche of enforcement-led laws among states and localities has abated.
Your film Farmingville, which documented the attempted murder of two Mexican day laborers in Farmingville, New York, premiered almost a decade ago. In your opinion, have sentiments towards issues of immigration changed since then or have they worsened?
We go through cycles with immigration, more specifically, illegal immigration. As Latinos, we know this. We saw Mexicans being welcomed into states like California in the 1910’s because they were felt to be biologically adapted for stoop labor. Come the Depression there were massive deportations that swept in US citizens. With the need for labor during the Second World War came the bracero program that imported temporary labor from Mexico. In the 1950’s came Operation Wetback, which meant deportations back to Mexico. And so it goes.
In the decade since we made “Farmingville”, it’s as if we’ve had mini-swings. There have been several attempts to pass immigration laws. George W. Bush it seemed was very close to it in 2001 right after he took the presidency. He was a border governor and understood immigration matters from that perspective. Then 9/11 happened and all that got derailed. There was the Kennedy/McCain bill that looked like it had a chance and that didn’t happen. Then there was the Sensenbrenner bill that was very anti-immigrant. But overall the arc of this last decade has been decidedly more hostile.
It should also be noted that in the years after “Farmingville” hate crimes against Latinos jumped remarkably. These included the murder of Marcelo Lucero in Farmingville’s neighboring town, Patchogue in 2008. The perpetrators were teenagers who were out “beaner jumping.”
As we write this, there’s an immigration reform bill that’s passed the Senate and we’re waiting on the House. It seems like the time is right for immigration reform. But who knows? Things have been close before. We’re hopeful that the time is right for all sides to come together and get something done in the next year or so.
Farmingville helped change policy around undocumented workers. Are there hopes for policy change on immigration through your film?
We wouldn’t lay a claim to go as far as saying “Farmingville” actually changed policy. We do think it had an impact on attitudes. Similarly, we hope that The State of Arizona will generate dialogue around immigration reform.
We just had an exciting screening on Capitol Hill in DC. Representative Joe Garcia hosted and spoke at the event; Representative Kyrsten Sinema, who appears in the film, addressed the group as well. A panel of heavy policy hitters said the film not only chronicled the struggle around SB1070, but caught the larger mood of the country around immigration.
As a result of the screening, other Members of Congress have expressed interest in using the film at town halls about immigration. There are a number of organizations that are taking the film to their constituents around the country so that discussions can begin on a local grassroots level. We hope that with the broadening of the release of the film and community screenings, the dialogue will flow around immigration reform.
When you began filming, the issue was solely at a state level. It has now spread to other states as you mentioned in the film. What impact do you feel Arizona had on the rest of the states?
After Arizona passed their “show me your papers” law there were at least 30 other states considering or that passed copycat legislation. Many were waiting to see where the Supreme Court would come out on the issue. After the Supreme Court struck down three of the four provisions before it, the other states backed off. We hope the federal government will step up so that states don’t feel the need to pass their own laws. One of the takeaways from Arizona is how frustrated people can get when the federal government leaves a void on this issue.
Arizona’s SB1070 was taken to the Supreme Court. How did this change the scope of the story?
The Court’s decision to take up United States v. Arizonachanged the scope of the story profoundly, in unexpected ways. We thought we were finishing the edit of our film at the time the Supreme Court announced they would hear the case. This left us in the position of having to decide whether to continue filming and editing. Our budget hadn’t contemplated this extraordinary contingency. Continuing would mean a serious financial risk. But artistically, we felt we could not finish a film about a law and its effects without including its culmination at the nation’s highest court.
We decided to take the risk and ultimately it paid off artistically. We were able to spend more time with our characters and develop more interesting and personal storylines. In the time pending the Court’s decision, Russell Pearce was recalled and most of Jorge Martinez’s story took place. These two events shifted the emotional dynamic of the film.
Where do you think the harsh reaction some Americans have towards immigrants stems from?
Many would take issue with the way in which this question is framed, saying it’s about illegal immigration, not legal immigration. And that’s the rub.
It’s hard to live in a pluralistic democracy – one in which the rule of law allows us to mediate and order our lives – and not appreciate the benefit of law. And yet we are compassionate nation, one built mostly of immigrants. When these two fundamental principles collide – as they do with illegal immigration – we have to decide which aspect we favor or live with the inconsistency. That deep inner conflict drives a lot of the emotion around immigration today.
But in recognizing that we also have to recognize that for some, the argument of the rule of law masks deeper discomforts with a changing American face. The legitimate concern with law shouldn’t serve as a convenient mask for intolerance, which it can. Ferreting out that line between legitimate concern and issues of race is part of what our filmmaking is about.
What did you see on the ground that surprised you the most while working on the film?
When we got to Arizona we were very surprised to see both sides so polarized and entrenched. It felt like there was no way there would be a bridge to cross this divide. The other thing that surprised us was the invigorating sense of resistance in the community organizing against SB1070. We watched as they built their numbers and developed a sophisticated, multi-pronged strategy to fight SB1070. They took to the ballot box, took to streets and stayed away from the cash register. It was remarkable to see small “d” democracy at work before our lens.
What do you hope audiences will take away from the film?
We hope audiences will take away a deeper understanding of all sides of the issue and see each other as human beings, each with legitimate concerns that may be accommodated, if not fully resolved. We hope people will begin to listen to each other. If we listen to what the other person has to say we might begin to have a better understanding of what is driving them and what they believe. When people feel listened to and heard they in turn might begin to open up and listen to the other side. We hope that people will urge their representatives and senators to see that the country abhors a vacuum and needs immigration reform. We know where our hopes lie, but it’s up to the viewer to look in the mirror and find that answer within her or himself.