PHOENIX, Ariz. — Visiting M.D. Pruitt’s Home Furnishings on a Saturday morning, one sees much more than tables and sofas. Signs reading, “Who Would Jesus Deport?” and “No More Open Borders!” will most likely remind customers and passersby that we are indeed living in an interesting time.

A vicious clash

Since owner Roger Sensing last fall asked the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) to arrest Latino day laborers on the sidewalk by the store’s parking lot, Pruitt’s has become the epicenter of both pro- and anti-immigration rhetoric here. Allegedly, day laborers, who were nowhere near the store’s entrance, were intimidating customers and thus harming business. Since Sheriff Joe Arpaio has taken immigration enforcement into his own hands, the MCSO promptly sent off-duty sheriff’s deputies to deter and arrest the migrant workers.

Now, activists from every political camp flock to the furniture store on Saturday mornings to show their support for (or opposition to) the undocumented day laborers.

Immigrant rights activists said the first two demonstrations this winter went rather peacefully. But in the third week, the numbers of counter-protestors began to grow.

Despite the support they are receiving, the migrant workers have faced harsh retaliation, with some 70 people, mostly of Mexican origin, arrested so far in front of the store.

Sheriff Arpaio has vowed to continue his presence at Pruitt’s. Last month he declared, “All the activists must stop their protests before I stop enforcing the law in that area.”

A dangerous precedent

Recently Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon proposed revising the Phoenix Police Department’s Operation Order 1.4 so police will be able to detain those who have crossed the border illegally, a federal misdemeanor. If the revision passes, police will assume the role of Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents (ICE). Pro-immigrant activists say this will open the way for racial profiling, and that undocumented migrants who witness a crime will be unwilling to testify for fear of deportation.

Economic and racial issues are further points of concern. Former state Senator Alfredo Gutierrez, who hosts a show on Radio Campesina, told me, “With a couple hundred officers, [Sheriff Arpaio has managed to] terrorize much of our community. You could imagine what a few thousand police officers are going to do when they begin to simply ask people [about their immigration status] and take them away.”

Considering that Latinos account for a significant portion of Arizona’s population, the Phoenix economy has suffered, too. Laura Ilardo, founder of Phoenix’s No More Deaths, says, “people aren’t shopping. People are not going out because they are afraid of what’s going to happen to them the minute they walk out their door.” She feels the new operation order will set a precedent for other cities.

March of the migrants

On Dec. 19, demonstrators organized by indigenous and Latino rights activist Salvador Reza gathered across from Pruitt’s at 9 a.m. At 10 a.m., we began marching to City Hall to publicly express our concerns.

As we walked by office buildings, homes and construction sites, the city seemed to stand still. Our presence was immense. “¡El pueblo! ¡Unido! ¡Jamás será vencido!” (“The people! United! Can never be defeated!”) and “Sheriff Joe! Go home!” were regularly proclaimed along the way.

We stopped briefly at Police Headquarters to thank Chief Jack F. Harris for his respect and professional conduct regarding our Constitutional Rights. Harris has been under immense political pressure to mimic Sheriff Arpaio’s tactics. But he has held his ground, believing that working with everyone in the city will make our communities safer.

At City Hall, we were greeted affectionately by anti-immigrant demonstrators. A man shouted, “Get legal or go home. You are all terrorists!”

We chanted, “The people! United! Will never be divided!”

When a woman saw the hammer and sickle on my cap, she screeched, “See! See! Look at who’s supporting them! Communists!”

We made our way into the City Council meeting at 3 o’clock. The room was full, and the counter-protestors were so busy making noise that they failed to reserve seats. They were blocking the entrance in violation of the Fire Code, and were subsequently asked to leave.

After two hours of unrelated business, opponents of Operation Order 1.4 were given a chance to address their concerns. Minute-long speeches were delivered by Reza and by Rev. Liana Rowe of Interfaith Worker Justice of Arizona. Only one Minuteman favored the revision. For now, it is unclear whether the statements had any effect on the mayor or the rest of the city council.

And more to come

In a recent e-mailed statement, Rep. Harry Mitchell (D-Ariz.) expressed pride over having voted for legislation the House of Representatives passed to invest a record $15.1 billion for border security, an increase of $1.2 billion over President Bush’s request and nearly $2 billion over 2007 levels.

Similar spending can be seen at the state level.

Most damaging of all is the elected officials’ flagrant disrespect for humanity.

Roberto Reveles, former president of Somos America, the coalition that organized the large immigrant march in Arizona last year, told me of a woman, unaffiliated with the demonstration, who was arrested during the Dec. 19 march. As she was on her way to the grocery store with her child in her arms, she was stopped by the sheriffs and questioned about her legal status.

Reveles said the only probable cause for the interrogation was that the woman happened to be brown-skinned. “If that isn’t racial profiling,” Reveles said, “then I don’t know what it is.” He expressed his hope for an ordinance “that would respect the constitution rights of everyone to walk the streets of our city without fear that they will be asked to identify themselves.’