Ground Zero for Immigration?

Latinos are fleeing Arizona as crackdowns increase in the border state.

By Valeria Fern?ndez Mar 20, 2008

Nothing better reflects the social tension and cultural clashes of the immigration debate in Arizona than the sidewalk across from Pruitt’s Furniture store on the corner of Thomas Road and 35th Street in the heart of Phoenix.

On a Saturday morning, the old-West, two-story building with white-rimed balconies was fortressed by a wall of eight large delivery trucks. A dozen armed deputy sheriffs secured the empty parking lot. Traffic slowed down. American flags and Che Guevara T-shirts, mariachi and country music collided and sometimes merged on a single sidewalk. “Sí se puede,” “No se puede,” “Deport them all” and “No human being is illegal” were shouted across the street by two antagonistic crowds.

The protests had begun when the business owner, Roger Sensing, hired three off-duty deputy sheriffs in November 2007 to patrol the area and keep day laborers off his property. Latino activists launched an economic boycott and a string of weekly protests.

“It looks like now anyone can hire private immigration police,” complained Salvador Reza, member of Tonatierra, a nonprofit organization for community development that started the boycott.
In response, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America,” Joe Arpaio, sent extra deputy officers to the area vowing to put pressure on the protesters. In December, his officers arrested more than 60 undocumented migrants during traffic stops in a nearby neighborhood.

This is Arizona today.
The border state has become a place of fear for immigrants. A string of local ordinances, ballot initiatives and state legislation, coupled with a crackdown by federally trained police on undocumented workers, is pushing immigrants into the shadows. In December, Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon decided to oppose a 20-year-old rule that kept local police from asking about a person’s immigration status. The mayor now says that should be reversed because the federal government does not “fulfill all its responsibilities regarding immigration enforcement.” Latino families have begun leaving the state in favor of more relatively immigration-friendly destinations like New Mexico, Utah and Canada.

Both anti-immigration and pro-immigrant crowds perceive Arizona as the battleground for immigration reform. The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that there are 500,000 undocumented immigrants in the state, or about 9 percent of the population. Maricopa County, which includes the city of Phoenix, is the fastest-growing county in the nation with 3.8 million people, and it has experienced a steady growth in the number of Latinos. According to census data for 2005, Latinos made up 29 percent of the total population.

The implementation of an employer-sanctions state law scheduled for March caused uncertainty among immigrant families and businesses. While an ongoing legal challenge may put a stop to the law that takes away operating licenses from business owners who knowingly hire undocumented workers, two initiatives that attempt to either harden or soften the actual law may go on the ballot this year.

Arizona’s choir of political figures with a tough stance on illegal immigration has fed the public fear. “These people are illegals. They crossed the border and violated the law,” said Arpaio, who has turned 160 of his deputies into immigration agents. He now has the largest police force in the nation trained on the enforcement of immigration laws through a memorandum of understanding with the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).
From March to the beginning of December in 2007, his agents arrested more than 522 immigrants. Day laborers found during ordinary traffic stops and corn mobile vendors were among some of the arrests that resulted from tips to Arpaio’s specially created hotline to report undocumented migrants. The hotline is advertised throughout the county on the sheriff’s vans, which display the traditional “do not enter” decal with the word “illegally” written across it. Since 2006, Arpaio’s deputies also arrested more than 781 migrants thanks to Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, whose interpretation of a new state law allows for the arrest of both smugglers and those who hire their services. Arpaio and Thomas are now preparing to enforce the new employer-sanctions law based on anonymous complaints from the public.

“I’m packing and ready to go before December,” said Carlos Silva, an undocumented migrant from Acapulco, Mexico, who is planning to move to Saint George, Utah, with his wife and daughter. “Now I’m afraid of even opening my door, because immigration might be coming for me.” Silva, who is 50, works for a golf course in the city of Avondale.

Other families are considering returning to their country of origin rather than risk being separated as a result of a traffic stop or a work-site enforcement raid.

“I think self-deportation is exactly right,” said Russell Pearce, a Republican state legislator who authored the employer-sanctions law. “They should go and come back the right way.”

Pearce, who represents the Phoenix suburb of Mesa, believes that by scaling back or refusing public benefits for immigrants and cracking down on employers that hire undocumented workers, Arizona will no longer be an appealing destination.

His strategy might be working. Several interstate and international bus stations have reported an increase in one-way ticket sales to the states of Sonora and Chihuahua in Mexico. Mesa Public Schools lost 1,300 children, compared to the previous year, in schools where enrollment is mostly Latino.

“Families are choosing to go somewhere else. I’m hearing New Mexico and Albuquerque,” said David Lane, a Mesa Public School District board member, who thinks the immigration issue could be one of the reasons parents are taking kids out of the schools.

The exodus of immigrants was felt in the business community this past holiday season. Owners reported a drop in purchases at used cars lots, restaurants and even hair salons that cater to Latinos. That’s putting a damper on the owners themselves.

“People are afraid to invest and expand, because we don’t know what will happen,” said Aureliano Dominguez, one of the directors of Union Potchteca, which represents hundreds of taco vendors.

The crackdown on illegal immigration is also resulting in an under-reporting of crime. Neighbors in the community near Pruitt’s Furniture store didn’t call police during a recent murder.
“Everyone knows who did it, but no one wants to say,” said an undocumented migrant from Oaxaca who asked to remain anonymous because of her immigration status. Her husband was among those arrested in a traffic stop by a deputy sheriff last November.

“Our officers can perceive the fear, as immigrants resist being witnesses by leaving the scene of a crime,” said Dan Saban, chief of police of the city of Buckeye, who recently joined 10 other police chiefs in a public statement against the enforcement of immigration laws by local authorities.

Community groups are responding in a number of ways to the situation in Arizona. The pro-immigrant organization We Are America Coalition is focusing on voter registration of Latinos. The hope is that they will change the political landscape of Arizona. A large group of Latino-focused nonprofits has also denounced the situation in press conferences and letters, and organized educational forums on civil rights. Other groups like Unidos en Arizona are taking a practical approach by educating families on how to prepare in case a parent is deported. For example, Linda Herrera, the director of the organization, frequently reminds families to appoint a U.S. citizen as the legal guardian for their children.

Several legal challenges against the sheriff’s and county attorney’s actions have been waged in court but have not been successful.
“It has gone beyond illegal immigration, and it’s becoming something racial,” said Tony Colón, a Puerto Rican-born public defender who works at the Maricopa County courts. “During jury selection, two or three people have expressed that they don’t trust Mexicans.”

Cristobal Arroyo, a 40-year-old legal immigrant, faces discrimination on an everyday basis at his work place.

“One day I walked into the portable bathroom, and there it was on the wall: ‘Go back to Mexico, wetback,’” he said recently during a protest outside the Pruitt store with his family. “Our children grew up here. We have roots now. It’s just that they don’t get it: “Estamos aquí para quedarnos.”