Finding Hope in “The State of Arizona”

For filmmakers Catherine Tambini and Carlos Sandoval, another film focused on immigration was not in the cards.  Ten years ago they made the award-winning documentary, Farmingville, about immigration in America set against the backdrop of the murder of two Latino day laborers.  The film was a critical success and helped spur national debate about our broken immigration system.

After living and working in Farmingville, New York for a year, both said they had decided to avoid delving back into the issue.  This even after one of the film’s featured characters, anti-immigrant activist and Minuteman Glen Spencer, told them that he was moving to Arizona because it was the next battleground.  They didn’t know it then, but Spencer was right.  Only a few years later Arizona passed its controversial  racial profiling law, SB 1070, also known as the “papers, please” law.  After it went into effect, the filmmakers realized they had to do something.

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Still from The State of Arizona

What resulted is their most recent documentary, “The State of Arizona.”  The film tells the story of how the polarizing SB 1070 law spurred Arizona’s immigrant community into action, bringing the entire U.S. Latino community together. You can watch a clip of the film below. The documentary airs on PBS’ Independent Lens when on January 27. Check your local listings for air times.

Sandoval and Tambini were in Washington recently for a Capitol Hill policy briefing that featured the film.  We had the opportunity to sit down with them afterward to talk about “The State of Arizona” and about immigration’s centrality to the story of America.

Before the Q & A, watch some clips from the film:

NCLR:  In your own words, what is SB 1070?

Sandoval:  SB 1070 is Arizona’s controversial immigration law.  It came to be known as the “papers, please” law.  Part of it was to require law enforcement to take people who looked “reasonably” suspicious in terms of their appearance.  The law was ultimately limited and required officers to make a lawful stop, but that was one of the controversial provisions of the law.  Another was the intent of attrition through enforcement, which really meant to make life so miserable for people that they would self-deport.


NCLR:  Why did you both get involved?  Why make this film now?

Tambini:  After Farmingville, one of the anti-immigrant activists in that film, Glen Spencer, said to us, “Arizona.  That’s the next place.”  He moved to Arizona and bought a ranch on the border.  A lot of things started to happen.  The Minutemen sprang up, and we were trying to avoid trying to go back into the issue, but things kept happening.  Once the law went into effect, we both kind of looked at each other and said, “Let’s go see what we can do.”

Sandoval:  For me, it was personal.  Here was a law that was being considered, and passed, that was going to racially profile me, and people who looked like me.  The fact that it was not limited in any way, the fact that the mere presence of walking down the street, people who looked like me, who were several generations American, could be stopped.  That angered me, and it frightened me.  After SB 1070, or while it was being considered and revised, that “reasonable” suspicion provision was unleashed; it could affect anyone.  I think that really charged the Latino community across the U.S. in ways that other issues had not.

Activists demonstrate outside of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Photo Credit: Lauren Asmus
Activists demonstrate outside of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. Photo Credit: Lauren Asmus


NCLR:  What kind of challenges did you encounter while you were in Arizona making the film?

Sandoval:  I think that from the storytelling perspective, one challenge was that this was a large sprawling story, an ongoing story.  When we arrived, the train had left the station in many ways.  We captured a community on the upswing, a community that had organized itself.  That’s part of the story that’s so remarkable.  Here you had a community that spontaneously brought themselves together and organized on a level of massive mobilization that was ultimately very effective.  We arrived as that was going forward, and we were trying to catch up.  And so access to people became difficult because. Thanks to folks like former NCLR Board Chair Danny Ortega, we had access to all the Latino community and the immigrant community all over Arizona.  Reaching out to people who were in favor of SB 1070, however, that community was a difficult one to reach.

Tambini:  It took us a long time to begin to penetrate the pro–SB 1070 side of the issue.  We went to every event that there was, but one of the major problems was that both sides were so entrenched.  It was hard to find anybody in the middle.  We like to find the person on the ground who can be the “everyman,” who can sort of speak for most of the viewers who will see the film.  That was a big difficulty when we got there.  It took us a long time to penetrate into the pro–SB 1070 world.  Finally, when we did, it really paid off.


NCLR:  Why do you think it was so difficult to find SB 1070 supporters willing to be filmed?

Duncan Blair on his cattle ranch that runs along the U.S.-Mexican border.  Photo Credit: Catherine Tambini
Duncan Blair on his cattle ranch that runs along the U.S.-Mexican border. Photo Credit: Catherine Tambini

Tambini:  A lot of the reasons that are the race card gets thrown.  People say things like, “Oh, you’re just racist.”  And supporters respond with, “No.  It’s the law.  What part of that don’t you understand?”  I think that people get painted with a broad brush, so everyone’s a little reluctant.  They don’t want people to know how they feel.  They don’t want to be ostracized.

Sandoval:  There’s another very practical matter.  When we arrived, as we said, people were organizing, mobilizing; they were moving.  They were organizing this march that was going to involve 200,000 people, and we were following that action.  We were following that story.  And so having the time to really seek out supporters of SB 1070, there just wasn’t enough time in the day.  We did get the chance, though, to go to a Tea Party rally that was to happen the same day as this massive march.  We went from this march that had familia, lots of music; everyone was well-ordered; the spirit was up.  It was fantastic.  And so we go over to the Tea Party rally, which was in a baseball stadium, and you could see the Hell’s Angels motorcycles lined up.  There were people screaming out things that were anti-Mexican.  “Vicente Fox has got to go.”  “Can you hear us Mexico now?”  “This is not your country.”  People were really ginning each other up.  There was hardly a person of color to be found.  I was so shell-shocked during the entire thing.  Catherine had to kind of hold me up and insisted that we stay.  And it was feeling that kind of anger enclosed within a stadium where everything kind of reverberated.  I was so stunned by this, and it occurred to us later that this is the story about the struggle for the soul of America.  It was people fighting over who and what we are, and that was really an incredibly emotional day.  That was a challenge.

Phoenix area resident Renee Taylor demonstrates in support of SB 1070 outside the federal court house. Photo Credit: Catherine Tambini
Phoenix area resident Renee Taylor demonstrates in support of SB 1070 outside the federal court house. Photo Credit: Catherine Tambini


NCLR:  How were you successful in finding folks who were in the middle?  Where’d you go to find them?

Tambini:  We didn’t really find folks in the middle.  Who we found was the mayor of Mesa, Arizona, Scott Smith, who for us became the voice of reason.  He’s our go-to guy in the film when we need things explained about the history.  He summarizes certain points for us, but it was very difficult.  We didn’t really find people who could walk us down the middle part where they were conflicted about one thing or the other.

Sandoval:  We did find very interesting and quite compelling characters, such as Catherine Kobar.  She loves to picket!  She’s a lovely woman, and very caring, but she just feels very strongly about this issue.

Tambini:  Part of her thing is that she feels there are just too many people.  She’s been influenced by the Numbers people.  She’s in her 60s and she’s found something that she likes to do and she goes and does it.  She’s our person on that side who’s the layperson.  Like Carlos said, she’s very lovely, she just has the issue.

Sandoval:  And just because she delivers things with such wonderful cadence, she’s a personality that comes across.


Supporters of tough Arizona immigration laws outside the state capitol. Photo Credit: Catherine Tambini
Supporters of tough Arizona immigration laws outside the state capitol. Photo Credit: Catherine Tambini

NCLR:  What do you think was in SB 1070 that people found support for?

Sandoval:  I don’t know that it was support for a specific provision, as much as it was support for “we’re okay with anything that deals with this matter.”  You have to understand that Arizona was ground zero.  There was a huge influx of people coming across the border.  Lives were changed.  Things got transformed in a relatively short time, a ten-year period.

Tambini:  Also, the media had a lot to do with ginning up this whole frenzy every day.  You see it in the beginning of the film.  There was a media frenzy that was making it a lot worse than it actually seemed to be, in my opinion.

Sandoval:  I think it’s frustration and a little bit of change and some anger, but I don’t think it’s [support for] any of the step-by-step provisions.  I think that’s true for a lot of Arizonans who feel like, “We’re pissed off because the federal government hasn’t done anything about this and we’re here by ourselves.  We have to do something.  And whatever it is, we just have to do something.”

Tambini:  Arizona also was the place where people were funneled.  [The feds] shut down the borders in Texas and California and really funneled people through Arizona thinking that it would deter people from coming because of the risk of death in the desert, but it didn’t.  People kept coming and coming and coming, and, as Carlos said, it became this hotbed.


Carlos Garcia arrested as he protests the implementation of SB 1070. Photo Credit: Michael Jordi Valdés
Carlos Garcia arrested as he protests the implementation of SB 1070. Photo Credit: Michael Jordi Valdés

NCLR:  What, if anything, do you think those opposed to SB 1070 can do or say to gain supporters for immigration reform?  Is there a winning argument?

Tambini:  I think a lot of what we try to do is humanize people.  We try to let people see how we’re alike rather than how we’re different.  So that’s one thing we try to do with our films is to show what it’s like to be in somebody else’s shoes, show compassion.  If you can see that families are being broken apart, those sort of things work.

Sandoval:  It’s a conversation and dialogue, and probably a variety of conversations, because the conversation always starts with, “They’re illegal.  It’s the rule of law.”  So then you have to sort of talk about the compassion aspect.  Do we really want to break up families?  Is that the American value?  What is the cost/benefit of analysis?  Looking at how, overall, reform is better for the economy.  So it’s a framing and re-framing of it.


NCLR:  What do you think is missing in the immigration policy debates here in Washington?

Sandoval:  I have two answers that are kind of diametrically opposed to each other, and one of them comes from someone like Erika Andiola.  Her own mother was picked up for deportation.  Erika’s left Washington to work in Arizona to work as an activist.  She put across that there is a need for urgency, and the real issue right now is deportation.  We don’t care if it’s Republicans or Democrats who stop it, what we want focus on is stopping those deportations.  So there’s that voice, which is saying we’re going to do everything we can, we’re going to take inventive civil actions to do that.  That voice may push reform because it just pushes the dialogue further.  Then there are the people who are calling for much less than those supporting immigration reform want.  How you get that dialogue going I don’t know, and, obviously, Washington is stuck in that.  I think that the general consensus across the country is get something going and make it happen.

Kathryn Kobor with her picket signs. Photo Credit: Catherine Tambini
Kathryn Kobor with her picket signs. Photo Credit: Catherine Tambini

NCLR:  What is different now in Arizona since the Supreme Court decision?

Tambini:  Rep. Sinema [Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.] told us that opening day in the legislature this year, they had the Mexican consul general to come and speak.  This is four years after SB 1070 was passed and all this anti-Mexican sentiment going on.  There are people who are now in charge of the Arizona Senate who are voting down those more extreme laws.  No new laws have passed.  No new anti-immigrant laws have passed.  And they’re very organized on the ground.

Sandoval:  The tide turned in Arizona.  Within the state, it’s a very different feeling, from what I gather.  Scott Smith, the Mesa, Arizona Mayor, and a Republican, there’s a lot of talk about him because he’s about to run for governor, and he’s a more moderate politician.  That chatter has resulted in the extremes pulling back.  The irony is, and as a country I think we’re in the middle zone, the irony is that as things seem to be more positive in terms of the possibility of reform, we still have the highest record number of deportations.  That’s the tension right now.  Going back to the urgency for reform so we don’t have other Arizona’s, and the immediate need to stop breaking up families unnecessarily, that’s the tension we engaged in the immigration debate are facing now.


NCLR:  What do you think comes next after comprehensive immigration reform?

Sandoval:  That depends on what comprehensive reform looks like.  I’m going to take your term and just call it immigration reform, because I think there’s a real possibility that whatever passes may not be “comprehensive.”  My concern is that if we go the piecemeal approach, then fine, but then it depends on what order you take it in.  If you put enforcement first and then maybe guest-worker programs, employer sanctions, those are the easy ones.  But then you get to the issue of legalization.  Will we actually carry that out?  And if we don’t, then we’re where were before.  The scenario under piecemeal versus comprehensive is very, very different.  If we get all the way through with piecemeal, great, but what will be given up in the course of the piecemeal approach is the question.  I say that in a pragmatic way.  If we don’t deal with what someone in our film calls the “hairball,” that is the split families, the 11 million undocumented, if you don’t deal with them in some way or another, the situation continues.  The frustration continues on both sides.  It has to be dealt with otherwise the rest is just window dressing.


NCLR:  What do you hope viewers walk away with after watching your film?

ImmigrationRally_7_10_2013Sandoval:  Hope.  This is what’s ironic for me, but it’s hope.  It’s that you can turn things around through action.  That mobilization, going forward, working hard, having patience, that there can be hope…  What we saw going on was that as the wrath of more extreme immigration laws were proposed, that Republicans led the charge in not going down that route.  So there was a sense in which, speaking of the American character, that we’ll only go so far.  Now how far they went in Arizona may be farther than a lot of us wanted to go, but it means that there’s room for something to come to a halt.  Your immigration and civic engagement director, Clarissa Martínez-De-Castro, at the briefing said that things with the immigration debate were at a fevered pitch and that with Arizona, the fever broke.  It’s a greater sense of public support for immigration reform.  The film tracks that arc.  We hope people will watch the film and gather hope from that.

Tambini:  We also hope people will begin to come together and talk about what needs to happen with immigration reform.  It seems like things are kind of stalled again.  We have great hope that something will happen this year and so we’re hoping that the film being used by groups around the country will begin to stimulate that dialogue so that they’ll go back to their elected representatives and say, “Look, we really want something to happen and here’s the way it needs to go.”  That’s a big hope for us.

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