Shawna Forde saw herself as a Robin Hood figure -- someone on a moral mission. As media director of the Washington state chapter of the Minuteman project -- the San Diego-based "citizens' Neighborhood Watch on our border" -- Forde was a spokesperson for the organization. Her dedication inspired other members of her family to join her on yearly trips to Arizona to "secure" the Southern border. In 2007, with Jim Gilchrist, her mentor and a Minuteman project founder, by her side, she told a crowd of about 100 people at the local Elks Lodge about her moment of political awakening.
"I was in the mall one day and, hey, nobody's speaking English. I realized we had a serious problem. I just got tired of pushing 'one' for English," she said. "I decided to do something about it."
So on May 30, 2009, Forde stood strong against the injustice of pushing "one" and, dressed in a Border Patrol uniform, broke into a home in the rural Arizona town of Arivaca and shot 9-year-old Briseña Flores and her father to death. The break-in was part of an elaborate scheme to steal money from alleged drug traffickers to fund her fledgling organization. This week, a jury in Tucson convicted her of two counts of first-degree murder and one count of attempted first-degree murder for also shooting and wounding Briseña's mother.
However, the story of Briseña's murder, and Forde's trial in January and early February were eclipsed by the recent shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords and 18 other people at a Tucson grocery store, including 9-year-old Christina Green. Latino and left-leaning blogs quickly called foul: Why was the death of Christina Green covered so heavily in the press, yet Briseña's death barely mentioned? Weren't both these incidents equally tragic?
There is something odd about public grief in the first place -- the spectacle of a stadium full of Arizonans weeping over Green and the other victims they had never met, the president rushing to "console" the state's 6.5 million residents while acknowledging, "There is nothing I can say that will fill the sudden hole in your hearts." Public grief is quite unlike actual mourning. It's instead a national theater in which each citizen casts him- or herself as the victim, and whether a personal story becomes a public tragedy largely depends on how well the real victim stands for the ordinary American. "We" lost Christina Green, but only Gina Gonzales lost her daughter Briseña.
On one hand, it's not hard to see why it played out this way. Giffords, an elected representative, was ready-made to stand for the body politic. The fact that she and others were attacked while "performing democracy" makes it all the more unsurprising that the story became a parable about our national life. But there is more to it than that, and Bill O'Reilly's comment on the murder of Briseña Flores and her father, which was covered only after CNN and MSNBC were pressured into running their own stories, hints at another reason it initially got so little attention: "Now, exact opposite on the political spectrum, in Arizona: A woman member of the Minutemen breaks into an illegal alien house?"
Of course it's irrelevant whether the family were living in the country legally or not (in fact, they were all born and raised in Arizona). But the centrality of their immigration status to the story shows not only how immigration has been racialized but also how rhetoric about immigrants is used to dehumanize them and downplay their suffering.
In the mind of O'Reilly, the fact that the Flores family was Hispanic equaled "immigrant," and even the suggestion that they might have been in the country illegally was enough to transform them from victims of a racially motivated attack into criminals themselves. As Megan Ortiz at VivirLatino pointed out, "Something that tends to happen when the media covers these types of horrors, is double victimization. It's not enough that Raul Flores is remembered as a generous, good father. He also has to be linked to the drug trade as justification for the crime committed against him. ... This sort of information does nothing to shed light on the disgusting act of hate, instead it creates the opportunity for people to say, well he sort of deserved it."
But painting the Flores family as criminals was also part of an effort to absolve the Minuteman movement of any responsibility for the attack. Indeed, as the country went on a ponderous soul-search about whether the tone of our political discourse had anything to do with the Giffords shooting -- and right- and left-wing media outlets obsessed about whether Jared Loughner, the alleged shooter, had ever been to a Tea Party rally or whether he had read The Communist Manifesto -- it was striking to consider that Shawna Forde was an assailant motivated by the remarkably consistent ideology of the anti-immigrant movement, with which she had extensive ties going back for years.
Gilchrist, the Minuteman leader who was also on Forde's shortlist of people to contact were she to ever be arrested, had openly praised Forde -- he called her "a stoic struggler who has chosen to put country, community, and a yearning for a civilized society ahead of avarice and self-glorifying ego." Like Gilchrist and other anti-immigrant zealots, Forde ranted openly on her website about "anchor babies" and the impending takeover of the country by "illegals":
After they cross the border, they are taking over area's of our cities, neighborhoods, schools with their way of life witch is: 1 Corruption 2 Lie's 3 Drug dealer 4 welfare fraud 5 stealing 6 Filthiness 7 Gang code of ethics 8 violence 9 no respect for existing Americans 10 Hate. I could continue this list I have seen first hand and have been getting to know people in the Hispanic community so that when they say we should respect the plight of these pour people do not be fooled for one moment they think we are weak and stupid plus we don't speak their language so they operate their own life styles under the radar. I would say 90% of all patrons here are illegal some just got her yesterday. These are not proud people they are nothing more than thugs.
Error-ridden as Forde's ramblings might be, it is no secret that this type of rhetoric is regularly parroted by border vigilantes and conservatives more generally. Last week at the Conservative Political Action Conference, Mark Krikorian, the executive director of the Center for Immigration Studies -- a hate group that masquerades as a think tank -- participated in a panel discussion in which he told an apocryphal story about a Mexican woman rushing across the border as her water broke. Because of this problem, Krikorian explained, some states have considered granting a special birth certificate to the children of undocumented immigrants. "And some states can't even find them!" chimed in a fellow panelist, causing the audience to erupt in laughter.
The Obama administration, too, has signed on to the idea that the country is under violent siege by a wave of drug-trafficking illegal immigrants. Not only did the president assure Congress that undocumented immigrants and their children would not be covered under the new health-care law, he also has radically stepped up the number of deportations and sent the National Guard to help "secure the border," even though crime in the area is at its lowest point in decades.
Given the way we talk about immigration and the surge of Arizona-type anti-immigrant laws popping up in states across the country, perhaps it is no surprise that the Flores murders did not serve as a lesson about our politics. Whether this reflects conscious racism or not, it is at least clear the story was considered too "complicated." In the end, the real and tragic consequences of our heated rhetoric on immigration is a lesson most Americans are not willing to learn.