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Alessandra Soler-Meetze and Immigration in Arizona | Race-Talk | 310

Alessandra Soler-Meetze and Immigration in Arizona

Filed under: Immigration,Latinos,Politics,Women |


The director of the ACLU of Arizona shares her personal satisfactions and the difficult work of advocating for what she considers a besieged immigrant community in Arizona, the home state of laws like SB 1070

Phoenix, Arizona – Alessandra Soler-Meetze believes her experience as Communications Director for the ACLU of Florida prepared her to some extent for her challenging role as Director of the ACLU of Arizona.

During her years working in Florida, new immigration enforcement policies began creating partnerships between federal authorities and local police departments in some parts of the country. Eventually, this trend would become a national model for the government to address the complicated issue of undocumented immigration.

“We did a little bit of work on immigrants’ issues in Florida at that time, but immigration has now become the number one political issue of this year’s elections,” said Soler-Meetze. “When I got here it was learning about the 287 (g), learning about secure communities, what this deputization means. These policies were just starting to be really formed and really implemented in Florida in a very, very small scale. When I came here it was just this explosion; we have the highest number of deputized officers enforcing immigration laws, higher than in any other state in the country; there were over 300 hundred of them.”

Her new role in Arizona, particularly handling issues related to immigration enforcement, represented a new learning curve.

“The learning curve was really focusing on how these issues affect the community on the ground, because what was happening is that the government says one thing, ‘Oh yeah, we’re focusing on the criminals, the ones that are a real danger to the community,’ but the reality is that you know they are arresting and detaining people for (civil violations like) not having a drivers license, so I think that although they have stated policies on the federal level, they are not really following those policies practices on the local level, and the result is people’s rights are violated on a massive scale here. Immigrant rights issues here in Arizona make up about 50 percent of our work, a large portion of our legal work. We have five cases against government officials for violating the rights of immigrants on behalf of what really has become a besieged immigrant community. People may not think of the ACLU as an immigrants’ rights organization; it’s not the organization that comes to mind that defends immigrants’ rights, but we’ve been around since the 1920s,” said Soler-Meetze.

After the Immigration Act of 1918, a statute that expanded the way the U.S. government defined deportable foreigners, United States General Attorney Alexander Mitchell Palmer (from 1919 to 1921) launched a campaign targeting radicalism. J. Edgar Hoover, then a law school graduate student, and who was also working for the Justice Department’s Enemy Alien Bureau, contributed to Palmer’s campaign –which was known as the Palmer Raids– by compiling a list of foreigners residing in the United States. Hoover checked arrest records, subscription records of radical newspapers, and party membership records. The main goal was to place foreigner individuals with supposed radical beliefs on deportation proceedings. The ACLU was created in this context and as a response to the Palmer Raids.

“Our first immigrants’ rights case was in 1920,” said Soler-Meetze. “We stood up to an effort by the government; the government was basically deporting people who had radical views, what they considered to be radical. There was an attorney general at the time named Mitchell Palmer, and he was just deporting people because they did not agree with their political views. That was 90 years ago so we’ve really been much, much more aggressive in defending the rights of the immigrants since the 1920s.”

The ACLU of Arizona was founded in 1959. Soler-Meetze is pleased that at the state level, her branch is known, among other aspects, for advocating for immigrants’ rights, as well as for her outreach efforts in the community.

“I’m so proud of the fact that people, at least in Arizona, know what the ACLU is. Yesterday I went to pick up my girls at the daycare and someone came up to me and said, in Spanish, ‘I’ve seen you before…I don’t know where,’ and I said, ‘Yeah, we do a lot of work through media or through Univision,’ and she said ‘that’s where I’ve seen you…’ She said ‘We really appreciate what you do.’ This is somebody who I never met before and just came up to me and said ‘thank you for everything you’ve done.’ Right after SB 1070 was enjoined, even though it was enjoined in the federal government’s case, I got calls from a lot of people saying ‘Thank you so much for the work that you have been doing on behalf of our community.’ I think that that’s something I am really proud of. We really made a concerted effort to reach out to the community through our legal work, to do the work that really needed to be done to fight off, fend off these horrific policies that are damaging our community.”

For Soler-Meetze, her satisfaction working for the ACLU of Arizona also has a very special personal meaning, since she is the first Latina to head Arizona’s ACLU affiliate.

“(The meaning of this) It’s huge! I am very proud of that, very proud to be working for an organization that has for so many years stood up for the fundamental values of equality and fairness for everyone, and to be (the first) Latina in Arizona I think that is something that I very much appreciate. I don’t think that I want to be anywhere else (than) working for the ACLU; this is exactly where I feel like I need to be. I’m working to really build the capacity of our organization to do more litigation, to do more outreach, and I think that that is really, really important.”

A great deal of what the ACLU of Arizona does consists in educating the public about the work they do not only in the courts but in the community and with individuals. In Arizona’s current political atmosphere, outreach has become even more necessary.

“We work very closely with our coalition partners to distribute material. Our role has been over the past couple of years to kind of really focus on the legal analysis, focus on being there as a resource for the community. So we’ve been producing materials so that people know what their rights are when they are registering their kids (in school). And recently this year we’ve taking on a role in terms of educating, conducting workshops and trainings for advocates on things like SB 1070 and HB 2008, the benefits bill; thousands and thousands of people were eligible to apply for benefits have not because they’re terrified that they are going to be deported based on their perceived immigration status.”

Among the educational materials the ACLU of Arizona has produced include literature about immigration rights, school enrollment and most recently a guide for travelers facing scrutiny by the Transportation Security Administration (TSA). Many of these materials reach the Spanish-speaking community in its own language.

Soler-Meetze believes the fact that the ACLU is a national organization, as well as its ability to partner with an array of other community agencies, is a key factor in identifying and meeting the real needs in the community.

“What it is unique about the ACLU is that we have affiliates in every single state in the country. We’re here and I think people recognize that, people from Arizona has recognized that. The great thing about the ACLU is that we work with a broad variety of groups and of course, all coalitions have disagreements, and I think it is only healthy, but our role has been to work with the various different groups to kind of figure out what the needs are, and to really try help to meet those needs and provide the legal resources to the community. We have a network of volunteer attorneys who we have trained, who we work with when there is a raid in the community, where we work with these attorneys to make sure that they are able to access the victims of raids and make sure they have legal help and do receive the help. We have been working with attorneys and advocates and the various different groups.”