Dispatch from Arizona: Life Without Sanctuary

In the freak show that is Arizona politics, it's hard to remember that real people live here. Their lives just keep getting harder.

By Aarti Shahani Aug 09, 2010

Remundo Payan has a secret that no one on his football team knows. "I’m a Mariachi," he admits. "Since I was six." 

The 15-year-old is sitting in his living room. He owns four guitars and holds his favorite one. "It was custom-made," he says, pointing to the taut strings. 

Remundo was born in Mexico. His mom brought him here at age five, on a visa that they overstayed. He’s so proud of his music, he wants the world to know. He’s so afraid of his immigration status, he’s not sure what to make public.

These competing emotions, between showing off and hiding, have forced a lifelong tension for the 10th grader. He’s felt it more this summer, though, because his mom won’t let him go outside much. 

"She’s afraid I’ll get deported," he says as a matter of fact. "We’re waiting," chimes in Remundo’s mom, Olivia Payan. For what, exactly, she can’t say.

In April, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070. A federal judge has blocked some of the most controversial parts of the law, but allowed the remainder to go into effect. 

The Payans, meanwhile, have been bunkered at home. The Payans live in Mesa, a suburb of Phoenix that’s a hundred miles from the border. Still, they feel fenced in. They’re not fed up enough to leave; they’re not bold enough to live as they had before. 

Much like this family, no side in the immigration battle can claim Mesa as a victory. Supporters of SB 1070 criticize Mesa for being a "sanctuary city"–a place where people without papers can live without fear of deportation. Remundo, on the other hand, now sees his childhood home as a hostile environment, where migration status is becoming more relevant in everyday life.

He lives in a beautiful house in the white part of town. His parents moved there because they wanted to shield him and his two little sisters from carjackings and drugs. Now they fear the neighbors want to call the police on them. "Anyone can get us deported," his mother says.

An SUV sits in the driveway, casting a shadow on a kitten’s litter box and a toddler’s bicycle. Remundo’s dad got a license in 1994, right after arriving here. His mom followed six years later. By then it was too late to take the test, thanks to a neighbor, Russell Pearce. 

Pearce is now Mesa’s most famous person, as the lawmaker behind SB 1070. Back in 1995, as head of the Motor Vehicle Commission, he successfully championed a proposal to require proof of legal status to apply for a driver’s license.

It passed without much fanfare, and well ahead of its time. Only after the September 11 attacks did states across the country follow suit. The trend created a Catch-22: "illegal" immigrants can only drive illegally.

"I’m licensed by God," Remundo’s mom laughs, her slender index finger pointed up. 

In 2009, the city joined the controversial federal program 287(g), which gives police and jailers the power to check immigration status. John Meza, assistant chief of Mesa Police, explains the move was part of the department’s effort to grab crime data from as many agencies as possible, from the feds down to local firefighters. Private consultants in a local "fusion center" help them look for crime trends and re-shuffle troops on the group accordingly.

The move to 287(g) came as a slap in the face for immigration activists, who had celebrated the Mesa chief at the time for verbally sparring against the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio when no other lawman would. They thought, incorrectly, that the department had made a principled stance against local police asking for papers. 

Before joining 287(g), a Mesa arrestee would have to go to court or the county jail to get tagged for deportation and handed off to Homeland Security. Now it happens in the first hours of booking in the local holding cell, even before the defense lawyer shows up. 

"There’s pressure to find out who you’ve got," Meza says. "We want their prints, anything we can get to make our officers smarter." If people who are acquitted or convicted of misdemeanors get deported–something the Obama administration says is no longer a priority–it is an acceptable byproduct of getting access to the federal data. 

SB 1070 doesn’t change the game so much as tweak it. Before last Thursday, the city of Mesa forbade police from asking crime victims, witnesses or juveniles about their immigration status. Now, according to Meza, officers can ask these once protected populations if they so choose, and call the feds for deportation accordingly. 

Meza, who’s been on the force for 24 years, is responsible for building trust with the Latino community, and shielding his department from political backlash. He doesn’t criticize the immigration raids that Arpaio’s Maricopa County deputies conduct in the city. "We have a really good working relationship," Meza says. "They take on the role of immigration enforcement. That’s their direction."

At times, that direction makes building trust hard to do, however. 

In April, Arpaio’s deputies raided two local McDonald’s. According to news reports, a citizen who was laid off called for the "crime suppression sweep" against co-workers who didn’t have papers. Officers made arrests for document fraud. The managers of both restaurants declined to discuss the raids. One even denied that they happened. Corporate headquarters didn’t return a call for comment. 

Henry is willing to talk about it, though. "They did the right thing," he whispers sheepishly as he stands behind the counter, ready to take the next customer’s order. He looks like a stock photo in a Fox News report on "alien gangbangers." He’s a Latino man. His left forearm is painted with an elaborate tattoo. 

Henry thinks the raids provide job security. He says he used to make $18.50 an hour in a meatpacking plant that shut down last year because of the recession. Now he doesn’t make enough to buy his three kids a Happy Meal.

Remundo remembers seeing the children of the detained McDonald’s workers on the evening news. "That could be me," he says.

He’s tired of sitting at home, but he’s not excited about school starting up. His teachers and classmates don’t know about his immigration status. Still, he explains, "after the law passed, a couple kids told me to go back to Mexico."

He’s already thinking about how to finance college. Arizona took in-state tuition rates at public universities away from students without papers. "Do you know of any private schools that give scholarships?" he asks. 

One day last May, Remundo was standing with a Latino friend, talking about SB 1070. A fellow student joined in to say that his grandfather wrote the bill. He was Russell Pearce’s grandson. 

"He was really proud of it," Remundo recalls. "The Mormons are racist."

Gabriel Sayavedra disagrees, in part. Sayavedra is a lawyer and represents two of the arrested McDonald’s workers. He’s also a devout Mormon who moved to Mesa for its vibrant religious community. 

Jesus told the Pharisees that a person without sin should cast the first stone. Sayavedra finds himself citing that Bible passage a lot these days. He’s the only Latino in a congregation that largely supports SB 1070. 

"The very religious don’t have much sympathy for people who commit traffic violations," he explains. "The Mormon articles of faith say you must obey the laws of the land." 

He thinks fellow church members are good at heart. He and Pearce worship together. 

"Russell Pearce is a real, real gentleman," he repeats a few different times. "It’s just that he doesn’t have any contact with the Hispanic community, so he sees them as an entity, not as a people."

Remundo’s family hasn’t been to a single protest, but they stream politics from a flat-screen TV. News coverage on their state is round-the-clock.

They’ve watched as a federal judge has weighed whether police can hunt them. As a dozen protestors blocked the metal gates to their sheriff’s jail. As a battalion of over 100 deputies in full riot gear whisked the protestors away in pink, plastic handcuffs. As the sheriff arrested his archenemy, a well-known community organizer, without probable cause and put him in solitary confinement. As 100 protestors returned to the jail’s gates, this time with a boom box, to hold an all-night party (including limbo and the electric slide). Somehow, they didn’t get arrested.

In the freak show that is Arizona politics, it’s hard to remember that real people live in the state. After the story of SB 1070 outlives round-the-clock national news coverage, they’ll still be here. Life, in and out of their sanctuary, keeps getting just a little bit harder.