Author Jeff Biggers talks about his new book State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream. The journalist and onetime Tucson resident takes a critical look at Arizona’s leadership on immigration reform and States’ rights; two issues at the heart of what he calls the “Arizonification of America.”
Ted Simons: Author, historian, and part time Arizona resident Jeff Biggers takes a critical look at Arizona's leadership on immigration, reform and states' rights in his new book, "State Out of the Union: Arizona and the final showdown over the American dream." I recently spoke with Biggers about his book, which adds historical context to what he calls the Arizonafication of America. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us. We appreciate it.
Jeff Biggers: Thanks so much for having me.
Ted Simons: You bet. "State Out of the Union," explain the title.
Jeff Biggers: The title is a reference to Abraham Lincoln and he warned the nation in the 1860s right when we were becoming a territory in Arizona that we have to be careful that there are these states, who in fact, that don't want to follow federal laws, who want to make their own laws and want to be states out of the union. And as I began to look at the contemporary reality of Arizona, it's very much a show down with the federal government over many things. It's not just immigration, but guns and health care, and what not. And so, the whole history all the way back to the territory I realized, hey, we have an element here that's been a state out of the union. We have to look at that. It's our history.
Ted Simons: Does it look to you, as a historian, kind of looking at this, is it much different than other western states? Or is Arizona unique?
Jeff Biggers: I think Arizona is unique. Certainly we share a regional history. Traditionally, we are an extraction state at beginning, 100 years ago we see signs now the centennial Arizona, and I think people forget, we came in as a very progressive state. We had one of the most progressive constitutions in the nation. We had this incredible labor governor; this big roly poly guy with a walrus mustache who talked about how the battle right now in 1912 was to get corporate money out of politics. And, in fact, Governor Hunt, our first governor, said we have to take 99% of the labor and management, and fight against the 1% of the copper companies. This is 100 years ago. And so really this dynamic battle which we have been fighting for 100 years really goes back to our state hood.
Ted Simons: The idea, though, of statehood and when we started, the progressive nature, the opportunities to go in any direction you want, has led to I think an individual nature that most recognize here in Arizona. When it goes into a direction that you or perhaps others don't necessarily agree with is that wrong?
Jeff Biggers: I don't think it's wrong. I think another cultural reality that's connected to that is, you know, we are very transient state. People come here, then move on. I am not sure what the demographics are now but when I was a kid growing up in Arizona, I grew up in Tucson in the 1970s, essentially 1/3 of the state shifted every few years. You had people who were not deeply rooted in conflict with people who were deeply rooted. You know Tucson, you know Shoshone, an ancient city like Phoenix thousands years old, we learned very quickly that the folks in Tucson didn't cross the border. The border crossed them. There was a very deeply rooted history of indigenous and Mexican people here before us. And so I think a lot of the cultural individualism, rugged individualist is part of a mythology that in fact is more mythology than reality in Arizona.
Ted Simons: How much is the past prologue here? How much can we look back and say, this is why we are what we are now? And really what are we now? Because right now, around the country, Arizona is perceived in a certain light. Whether you are for it or against it we are seen a certain way. I would say 10, 15 even 20 years ago it was completely different. And 30, 40 years ago differ even still. Who are we?
Jeff Biggers: I think that's a great question and you really nailed it. The past is the prologue. Essentially for the past 100 years, every 20 years ago we go through this kind of spasms of states' rights, spasms against immigrants and it's often when the economy collapses, when a war ends, or when someone, you can use it as a political opportunist, they use these kind of extremist measures. You go back to Governor Hunt, who really brought in a progressive state and the deportations in Bisbee when people were rounded up in the copper camps and deported. Then we had an incredible amount of labor in the 1920s and then we deported them. Of course, in my era, in the 1970s, everybody was looking at Arizona because passed this horrific bill against migrant workers and immigrants by one-eyed Jack Williams our governor. And César Chavez came back. And of course, César Chavez is from Arizona and he began this incredible fight back that really changed our state. He enrolled 150,000 new voters and eventually Raul Castro was elected as the first Latino. So, once again this past is a prologue is very true. We sort of go through these anti-immigrant spasms, these state rights spasms and the folks fight back. That's exactly what they are doing now.
Ted Simons: Interesting you mention that because you mention the former Governor Castro who was recently stopped, made headlines in that particular. But when what you see is extremism is the country moving so far to the right, is what is considered now extremism, is that not the new norm? In a variety of ways? And Arizona leading that parade, that particular parade.
Jeff Biggers: Right. I think that's a great question. The Arizonafication of America we call it and we know that Arizona, in fact, has shaped immigration platform of the Republican Party. That Mitt Romney was the first presidential candidate to embrace SB 1070. There was a poster, I was in Florida, I will never forget it, at a chain Mexican restaurant, that said our Mexican is so authentic, it's banned in Arizona. And of course, the sad part was that chain was actually was based in Alabama, that had passed a worse law. Because they had gone after undocumented youth in schools. The truth though is you might have this extremism that has essentially taken over the Republican Party and had incredible impact on the rest of nation, and that's what I look at in my book but the same time, in Russell Pierce's district, the man who is the architect of SB 1070, the man who had run it through like a beauty pageant was taken down in a historic recall. The first senate president in American history to be brought down in his own district by a group of people who said, hey, he doesn't represent Arizona anymore.
Ted Simons: Is that, but was that -- was that a group of people saying he doesn't represent Arizona or us anymore? Or was that a particular reaction to a particular individual saying, we don't necessarily disagree all that much with his views. We are just getting tired, in other words, right message, wrong messenger situation?
Jeff Biggers: No. I think it was a rejection of the idea that we can have a punitive immigration policy. It's not like the old days where there was a rough and tumble, let's just deport immigrants if we don't want them. S.B. 1070 changed the game because it put a criminalization aspect, that we are going to have a punitive aspect. That we are not simply deporting like President Eisenhower did under operation wet back, we are not deporting like President Hoover did. We are going to incarcerate them. We are going to criminalize them and we are going to, essentially, sanction them, what I consider racial profiling to ask for their papers, please. I think that's what people said, hey, now you are going too far. You are taking it beyond what we recognize as civil rights. You are taking it beyond what is acceptable for us as true Arizonans.
Ted Simons: Where does Arizona go from here? You mentioned what happened over there in Russell Pierce's district. You mentioned what happened in the '70s, with César Chavez, in immobilizing voters and changing the nature of the electorate for a time being. We hear every election cycle the Latino vote is huge, it's powerful. Except, it's not powerful because those folks don't seem to get out and vote. Is that going to change, a, and, b, if that does change, how does it change the state?
Jeff Biggers: It is going to change. You know Ted, you and I are not going to have this conversation five to 10 years from now. We may not have this conversation two years from now when Governor Brewer runs. What I think the extremists are afraid of is this historic demographic shift. I think our demographers will tell us that 80% of the gray heads in Arizona like my parents are Anglos and 60% or more of the youth in our schools are brown, they are Latinos or African-American or indigenous kids. This is part of this historic demographic shift that is happening. And we don't need to be rocket scientists to do the math. This is why in all fairness, why you have someone like Attorney General Tom Horne who got his citizenship apparently the same year as operation wetback, as hundreds of thousands of Mexicans were deported he gets his citizenship and this is why he's going after the history of Mexican-American history in Tucson where he essentially went after that program. Because I think he realizes this history is powerful and this history is part of a legacy that's defining this incredible historic shift we are going through now. So I think we are going to see a difference. I think that Latino vote may not emerge, it could perhaps emerge for a senate candidate like Richard Carmona, but I think in the next two to four to eight years we will see a watershed event happen in Arizona.
Ted Simons: So for those who say that they are not against immigration, they are against illegal immigration, and they are not against this particular group of people, they are against any group of people who don't follow the laws, who don't stand in line, if you will, as others have in the past. How do you respond to that? Because again, S.B. 1070 wildly popular in much of Arizona and I guess if you did a poll now it would still be popular.
Jeff Biggers: Right, I think it's wildly popular still because a tremendous amount of misinformation. You and I both know, since I have been a kid here in the 1970s, my family has been in Arizona, as we came here as migrants in 1970, we have had the lowest rates of immigration in decades. We have had the lowest rates of apprehensions of undocumented people in decades. We have had the lowest rates of crime on the border in years. These are the facts and we all know that. At same the time facts we are not talking about is that since Operation Gatekeeper in 1994 thanks to Bill Clinton we have lost 5,000 migrants in the desert. We have had this incredible human rights crisis that we're not talking about. And I think everybody agrees was your question. We all agree we want it to be done correctly. I think what we are asking for and what my book tries to explore is, when are we finally going to have the debate over a true immigration reform as opposed to all this shouting over a lot of misinformation? And basically a manufactured crisis that doesn't exist.
Ted Simons: Last question here. You won the American book award for a book regarding the United States of Appalachia.
Jeff Biggers: Right.
Ted Simons: Appalachia and Arizona very different parts of the country. Very different in a variety of ways or are they? Can you compare the two?
Jeff Biggers: You know, I can make one comparison. The national media likes to villainize people and they can't seem to give it up. The left to right, the Daily Show refers to Arizona as the meth lab of democracies. And that offended me, as someone who grew up in Arizona. I said, hey, there's the other Arizona, there's another Arizona, and it's going to have a far more lasting impact and that's the Arizona I am proud of. The Arizona of César Chavez, the Arizona of Governor Hunt, the Arizona of so many people today who are really coming out I think to be part of this significant exchange and I think that's what we need to change just like we need to change in Appalachia.
Ted Simons: I lied. This is the last question. The book, it's forceful. Your opinions are forceful. It borders on and perhaps it is a polemic.
Jeff Biggers: Sure.
Ted Simons: As such, can you get that message across or is it the kind of thing that you just basic -- I don't want to say preaching to the choir but folks who don't agree with you, how are they going to make their way into this book and be convinced that what you are saying is something to be considered?
Jeff Biggers: I am a historian. I have been working in the deep south for years, in the coal fields. I am used to working communities that perhaps not, may not agree with me politically. What I am interested in is how we look at history and how we present history and so my book really is a great cultural history of Arizona and to say this is really a better reflection of who we are as opposed to the screaming we might hear on Fox News or what not. I think people can understand that. I think I actually have been having very large crowds and not just preaching to the choir but I think a lot of people who have come to actually see what I am trying to say about this other Arizona. And I think that ultimately is the next step in our discussion that we do need to get beyond the polarization of Arizona and get back to the reality of who we are and really look at our history and how our history is a prologue to what we are doing today.
Ted Simons: Jeff, it's good to have you here today. We appreciate it.
Jeff Biggers: Thanks for having me.
Jeff Biggers:Author, State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream;