A relatively evenhanded and necessarily inconclusive close-up look at immigration wars and identity politics in the Grand Canyon State, "The State of Arizona" (PBS, Monday) features major players and ordinary citizens on each side of the battle as well as some who look at both sides from a confounded middle ground. Directed by Carlos Sandoval and Catherine Tambini (collaborators on the 2004 "Farmingville," about the attempted murder of two Mexican day laborers in a Long Island town), it is set mostly around 2010 and 2011 and centers on the passage of, implementation of and challenges to SB 1070, a still-controversial multi-part anti-illegal-immigration bill.
Immigration is a complicated issue in a country founded by people who, from the first, just … showed up, pitched a tent, planted a flag; new blood is its lifeblood. And so the film feels naturally more sympathetic to the state's Hispanic population, documented and otherwise, as the beleaguered and not the beleaguering parties. Native-born or naturalized Hispanics are also affected by a climate of fear and suspicion, and the police, as shown, can be heavy-handed. It does not help that they often look dressed as if for a dystopian near-future action film.
"I'm from Texas; we fought at the Alamo, we fought at San Jacinto," one irony-deaf supporter of the bill declares. "We took this country, we pushed the Mexicans back." Meanwhile, Gov. Jan Brewer insists, "I will not tolerate … racial profiling in Arizona," as she's signing a bill that essentially legalizes and encourages it by requiring police to ask for the papers of anyone they stop and "reasonably suspect" to have none. There are no guidelines as to what constitutes reasonable suspicion, however.
Even its sponsor, former state Sen. Russell Pearce, claimed the bill's aim was to depopulate the state's undocumented population "one traffic stop at a time." Pearce, who took his victories as a sign to double down, found himself the subject of a recall election once the business community, seeing the bad effect on the economy, requested a moratorium on further such legislation.
But Sandoval and Tambini also make it clear that Arizona itself is a victim of unintended consequences, federal immigration policies having encouraged workers who once would have crossed back and forth across a more open border to remain in the U.S., and, by fencing off the borders of neighboring Southwest states, to turn Arizona into a sort of funnel for immigrants and smugglers alike.
They don't pretend to know the answer other than to suggest, by the real lives they enter, that it should be something that pays respect to difference, to family and to actual if not legal roots in the country. (And I didn't not go into politics to pretend I have any of my own.) Many voices get a say, and you may well leave the film more unsure of your opinions than when you entered. But what "The State of Arizona" does do is give a sense of the issues as lived on the ground, of the energies marshaled by each side — so often missing from the reported news — and the human consequences of policymaking.