Dateline: Oracle, Arizona – The Attempted Migrant Child Bus Blockade: Truth and Consequences

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Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, left, with Frank Pierson of Oracle Have a Heart.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, left, with Frank Pierson of Oracle Have a Heart at the blockade in 2014.

A Guest Editorial By Frank Pierson

  A chapter of the Oracle Have a Heart campaign to welcome refugee children/youth to Oracle is now closed.  The federal Office of Refugee Resettlement no longer has a need for the Urgent and Compelling Program space at Sycamore Canyon Academy (SCA).  Over 250 individuals, mostly from Central America, have come and gone.  The safe haven of SCA fulfilled its responsibilities honorably and competently.  This federal mission in Oracle, Arizona was accomplished.

  The Oracle Have A Heart campaign was conceived as a response to a group who planted themselves in the pathway of the anticipated arrival of a bus bearing migrant children from Mexico and Central America.

  What happened in Oracle shouldn’t  stay in Oracle.  What happened in Oracle on July 15, 2014 in our small town  should figure prominently in the battle that pits the principal instigator of the attempted Oracle bus blockade – Republican Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu – against his Democratic opponent, Tom O’Halleran, in Congressional District 1.

  A bit of background.  Oracle is a community of about 4,000 persons 35 miles north of Tucson.  Founded by ranchers and miners, it has evolved into a notably diverse place whose inhabitants reflect the full spectrum of ideological difference.  Liberals live cheek by jowl with conservatives, artists with survivalists, Latinos with Anglos, retirees with young working families.  Oracle voters split roughly 50 – 50 Democrat, Republican.

  Unincorporated Oracle is governed by Pinal County from 45 miles away in Florence, AZ.  Law enforcement is provided by the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department.  The local justice of the peace is elected primarily by voters in the retirement communities of SaddleBrooke and SaddleBrooke Ranch over ten miles distant and socio-economically worlds apart.

  Absent a town government, community life revolves around churches (there is no mosque or synagogue), the K-8 School District, the Fire District, multiple non profits, a small business community, art/craft networks, extended families and informal social networks. 

  Into this mix, news of the arrival of unaccompanied minors from Central America dropped like a political cluster bomb.  A public official – Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu –  pushed the button of reaction.  “The migrants are coming”, he declared to a local Tea Party leader at a political fundraiser,   “organize an opposition.”  Soon to follow were a series of actions that led to the attempted blockade.

  The combustible blockade politics were a long time in coming, stretching back into the mid nineties when Operation Gatekeeper, a federal attempt to choke off the flow of immigrants through Tijuana, pushed migratory pathways from Mexico through the Arizona border.    

  As the flow shifted eastward, hundreds of thousands of individuals and families sought entry through the Arizona desert.  With growing numbers came a growing backlash.  Organizations – notably The Minutemen – formed in response.  Their activities included active patrols in largely uninhabited regions garnering reams of publicity and a movement that offered opportunities to aspiring politicians. 

  Chief among the political beneficiaries was Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio who burnished his toughest sheriff in America swagger with immigrant roundups and aggressive (illegal) ethnic profiling by his deputies.  Arpaio’s popularity grew with his anti-immigrant posture. 

  As the Minutemen fractured amidst scandal and leadership disarray their disposition to stop what they called “an invasion of illegals” gathered steam independent of their dysfunctional organizing.  A growing demand for border fencing, state legislation denying benefits to illegal aliens, pressure on the federal government to involve local law enforcement in the arrest and detention of illegals mounted.  In 2009, when moderate Democratic Governor Janet Napolitano was appointed to head The US Department of Homeland Security by incoming President Barack Obama, laws targeting illegals proliferated without the inevitable Napolitano veto.  Arizona became the locus of the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant legislation.  The Tea Party burst into view in the 2010 electoral cycle with immigration figuring prominently in the Arizona iteration.

  Paul Babeu ran for Sheriff of Pinal County in the same year Barack Obama was elected President – 2008.  HIs campaign – in part modeled after the much older Arpaio – seized upon the threat posed by immigrants as the primary driver of his electioneering.  Younger and slicker, Babeu fit nicely into the populist mode of anti immigrant, “constitutional” sheriffs.  With the in-migration of Republicans, Pinal County reached a political tipping point trending Republican just as Babeu was emerging as a candidate.  He caught the wave and rode it.  HIs opponent – the incumbent by appointment Chris Vasquez who was backed by a Democratic Party suffused with petty corruption – was soundly trounced.

  Sheriff Babeu and his tough on illegal aliens posture became a fixture on Fox News national.  His harsh rhetoric, photogenic style and alarmist rhetoric played well with the Fox audience.  He became a national face of anti-immigrant politics and a national attraction for political money.  HIs Facebook ‘likes” mushroomed along with his visibility.  He positioned himself on the front lines of patriotic opposition to foreign invasion.  HIs ad endorsing John McCain for Senator cemented his political bona fides as a political player with coattails.

  So successful was Babeu that he jumped into the race for Congress in 2012 seeking to represent Arizona CD 1.  HIs campaign crashed when he was outed as a homosexual by his lover who happened to be an illegal immigrant.  He gave up the congressional run to bide his time while the controversy over his gay lover blew over.  After a while it did. 

  Babeu continued to stoke his national image pursuing attention wherever and whenever he could find it.  Turning over primary responsibility for running the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department to his chief deputy Steve Henry, Babeu forged ahead with his plan to climb the ladder to higher office.

  The Oracle invasion fit his profile of opportunity.  Here was an event where he could play multiple roles – instigator, rhetorician, peacekeeper, all in the public eye – that seemed will suited to his ambitions. 

  Sounding the alarm of imminent invasion by dangerous Central American migrant youth – at the behest of the federal government no less – was a spotlight Babeu couldn’t resist.  The constitutional sheriff would highlight a crisis in his County that would further expose the threat posed by illegal aliens.

   He played it for all it was worth.  Stoking fears about the potential presence of MS 13 gang members and diseased, criminal youth. 

  Babeu’s followers were even less nuanced in their threat claims than he was.  Ron Thompson – himself a recent migrant to Oracle – declared unequivocally that in the arriving population of migrant youth were criminal elements and contagious disease.  His clarion call was picked up by national rightwing media free of qualification or disclaimer. 

  As Thompson and other blockade organizers laid their plans, Babeu slipped sideways, still supportive but more distanced.  The blockade, after all posed a risk, not only of breaking federal law but also of violent confrontation.  Babeu reassigned several of his deputies to the crisis hot spot and repositioned himself as peace keeper and go between.  “You have a right to protest,” he declared to one and all while shuttling back and forth between groups, “but not to law breaking.”

  Babeu’s role in averting potentially violent confrontation – many blockaders were armed and in some cases visibly so – was dwarfed by the decision by a large group of “counter protesters” to gather three miles from the blockade site.  Their resolve to keep the opposing groups apart radically reduced prospects for escalating conflict.   Their solidarity with refugee chlldren/youth kickstarted a media presence highlighted by a heart image that informed a suddenly robust “Have a Heart” campaign.

  Objectives for the blockade itself as it unfolded were straightforward – block the entry of migrant children, mimic the programmatic shutdown in Murietta, CA, gain media attention for a political cause in the same mode as the Minutemen of decades past.   

  While it remains unclear who in fact invited a cast of characters from as far away as California to join the blockade, or for that matter, who invited Russell Pearce, Adam Kwasman and other politicians closely identified with attempts to drive undocumented immigrants from Arizona, their presence shattered local prospects for a sober discussion of prudent community response.  Political polarization on immigrant issues driven by outsiders trumped immediate prospects for thoughtful community engagement within Oracle. 

  Speculation about who encouraged the influx of outsiders centers on Sheriff Babeu and one of the blockade leaders Ron Thompson.  Thompson’s trail of posts in cyberspace suggest he had the relationships in place to encourage the presence of the Arizona Militia and similar groups.  Certainly Sheriff Babeu, well known in those circles, was a factor.  Indeed, Babeu had regaled an audience of retires with worst case scenarios  – MS 13 gang members, disease, rampant criminality – the evening prior in the neighboring community of SaddleBrooke.

  Much to everyone’s surprise, the rush of a vote seeking politician – Adam Kwasman – to get in front of a bus he believed to be full of migrant youth upset the blockaders’ media play.  National news that evening featured his very public misfire when the bus proved to be full of Marana school district students on their way to a nearby YMCA camp. More problematic still, the Babeu promised bus filled with refugee youth never showed up.

  As prospects for confrontation receded with each passing hour, most of the blockaders drifted away.  A few locals maintained a vigil under an awning to protect themselves from the summer sun.  Hesitant to assume responsibility for an outcome that remained uncertain, their claimed objectives muddied. By the time of a “reenactment” staged for the cameras of filmmaker Joshua Okon, a blockade leader asserted that the aim of the group was information  from the federal government about the refugee youth.

  The cyber trail of social media and other web based communications proved otherwise.  There the founding objectives of the blockade were clear:  Stop the bus or buses and derail the federal program permanently.  Advance work noted in the same cyber trail promised a duplication of the Murietta outcome where the residency program was permanently quashed.  The same communications thread also confirms that blockade organizers believed without qualification that MS 13 gangs, disease and criminality infested the youth coming to Oracle. 

  While confusion reigned at the blockade site, several websites trumpeted the short-lived success of the blockade declaring that the attempt to bring refugee children/youth to Oracle was smashed and federal plans to temporarily house migrant children there dashed. 

  Sheriff Babeu skated free with multiple media appearances, his mission accomplished. 

  Or was it? 

  Now Sheriff Babeu is running for Congress again in the same district as before.  His triumph in the Republican primary was a slam dunk.  For many of those voters, his role in the attempted bus blockade is a feather in his cap.  HIs coattails – or lack thereof – tell a different story.  His hand picked successor, Steve Henry, was badly beaten in the Republican primary.  HIs law enforcement partner, Lando Voyles, lost big in his battle to continue as Pinal County Attorney.

  Now comes the general election.  When a broader group of voters turn their attention to his candidacy how are they likely to view what he put Oracle through by instigating, promoting, and misleading the community regarding a non-existent threat?  What will voters make of his willingness to risk public, potentially violent confrontation to enhance his visibility yet again?  What will voters make of his willingness to create the conditions  requiring a beefed up law enforcement presence at taxpayer expense purely to play to his own media attention needs?

  Who knows?  What is known is that how voters of CD 1 answer questions about Paul Babeu’s role in the attempted Oracle bus blockade will help determine the outcome of his quest for higher office. 

About the author:  My wife Mary Ellen Kazda and I moved to Oracle, AZ from Queens, NYC  in March of 1979.  We left the world of professional organizing with the IAF to head west.  For a time we worked together building cabinets. I returned to full time organizing with IAF in March of 1990 after a stint as a civic participation consultant and community college class recruiter. Shortly after arriving in Oracle we became actively engaged in local community issues and organizations.  Over the years we helped spearhead drives to close a a nearby toxic waste dump, discourage massive housing developments proposed to ring the town,  build the Oracle Community Center, organize an Oracle Town Hall Steering Committee, and strengthen community responses to catastrophic fire.  One or both of us have served on virtually every non-profit board in town from the mental health clinic to the Oracle Historical Society.

Staff (5785 Posts)

There are news or informational items frequently written by staff or submitted to the Copper Basin News, San Manuel Miner, Superior Sun, Pinal Nugget or Oracle Towne Crier for inclusion in our print or digital products. These items are not credited with an author.

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