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Immigration takes center stage at Netroots Nation

Thousands of progressive activists from around the country coalesced in Phoenix ready to rally for immigration reform.
People attending the Netroots Nation march begin a half mile march in the heat behind a 'Ice out of 4th Ave jail!' banner to protest Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigration policies on July 17, 2015. (Photo by Steve Rhodes/Demotix/Corbis)
People attending the Netroots Nation march begin a half mile march in the heat behind a 'Ice out of 4th Ave jail!' banner from the Phoenix Convention Center to the jail and Sheriff Joe Arpaio's office to protest his immigration policies on July 17, 2015.

PHOENIX -- At Netroots Nation in Phoenix this year, progressive activists had many topics to discuss: the upcoming presidential election, how Democrats could win control of Congress, LGBT rights. But just one issue was front and center: immigration reform.

Each year, the conference's organizers choose the location for the following year's event based on what they determine to be the defining issue for the progressive movement. This year, thousands of progressive activists from around the country coalesced in Phoenix ready to rally for immigration reform in a state where immigration has been a subject of contentious debate.

Arizona has pushed several harsh anti-immigration laws over the years, including SB 1070, which was signed into law by Gov Jan Brewer in 2010 and requires police officers to check the immigration papers of anyone they arrest, stop, or detain whom they believe may be in the country illegally. 

Throughout the conference, much of the discussion stayed very close to home: Several panels, screenings, and keynotes discussed the immigration system right here in Arizona. Puente Arizona, a human rights group focused on helping undocumented immigrants, partnered with Netroots organizers to screen documentaries about the immigration fight, organize panels and keynotes, and plan an immigration rally on Friday afternoon. Dozens of attendees milled about the convention center wearing t-shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "Arrest Arpaio" and "Arpaio-free AZ," referring to Maricopa County's own Sheriff Joe Arpaio, regarded by progressives as one of the country's fiercest anti-immigrant advocates.

Many Netroots attendees decried SB 1070.  Critics charge that the law allows racial profiling, and in 2013, a federal judge agreed. On Friday, Sen. Elizabeth Warren commented on the law while delivering her keynote address, saying: “SB 1070 is a stupid law, it is racist, it is unconstitutional, and it should be struck down.” 

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On Friday, sweltering temperatures did not deter Netroots attendees and Puente activists from rallying to call for Arpaio's resignation. Approximately 700-800 activists marched from the Phoenix Convention Center to the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Headquarters and 4th Avenue Jail, where numerous undocumented immigrants have been detained by U.S. Immigration & Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

Protesters reached the 4th Avenue Jail and rallied outside in 100 degree-plus temperatures, calling for Arpaio’s resignation, the removal of ICE agents from the jail, and an end to deportations. Ahead of the rally, Arpaio announced that he was putting the jail on lockdown all day on Friday and cancelling all visitations due to the rally.

Throughout the conference, Arpaio and other anti-immigration figures were blasted by attendees and speakers alike. U.S. Rep. Raul Grijalva described him as “a criminal with a badge.” Grijalva also received thunderous applause when he described presidential candidate Donald Trump, who visited Phoenix last weekend, as a “cretin.”

“The racist nature of Arizona started in 1848 when the border crossed us,” said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Arizona state Senator and immigration activist, at the opening keynote on Thursday night. His comments received raucous applause.

Another Netroots panel on Thursday, entitled “The People v. Arpaio,” featured a number of panelists who shared stories of being personally affected by Arpaio’s immigration crackdown practices. Panelist Katherine Figueroa, 15, described watching her parents get arrested on television when she was just nine years old in one of the sheriff's first major workplace raids. Despite her young age, Figueroa became a vocal immigration rights activist and fought for her parents' release from jail. 

RELATED: Progressives descend on Phoenix for Netroots Nation

Panelist Noemi Romero told audiences that she came to the U.S. with her family when she was a child and had no idea she was undocumented until she was a teenager. In 2012, when the Obama administration announced the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, she began working to save up to pay for her DACA papers. While working, Romero was arrested in a workplace raid and was detained at the 4th Avenue Jail for two months before being transferred to another facility. She was eventually released but says she is no longer eligible for DACA now that she has a criminal record due to her arrest.

Together, the immigration activists at the convention called for comprehensive immigration reform, but they also set their sights again and again on one particular target: putting an end to deportations in Arizona. Puente Director Carlos Garcia delivered an afternoon keynote address on Friday, calling for activists to continue fighting for immigration rights in Arizona and across the nation.

"When we say not one more deportation, we mean it," Garcia said. "We will be united in our fight at the intersection of the criminal justice and immigrant rights movements."

"Arizona made our language illegal in our schools, but we will still speak up," Garcia said. "Arizona made learning our history outlawed -- but we will carry on its legacy. Arizona made our skin color a crime, but we will resist."