As the days tick down until the Arizona immigration law takes effect, the state stands as a monument to the anger over illegal immigration that is present in so many places.
The anger has been simmering for years, and erupted into a full-blown fury with the murder of a prominent rancher on the border earlier this year. The killing became a powerful rallying cry for immigration reform and the sweeping new law set to take effect Thursday, barring any last-minute legal action.
But it does not tell the whole story about how Arizona got to this point.
Turn on the evening news in Arizona and some report reflecting the state’s battle with illegal immigration will likely flash across the screen.
A drop house crammed with illegal border-crossers smack in the middle of a suburban neighborhood. Traffic patrols and workplace raids that net the arrest of dozens of illegal immigrants, often in heavily Hispanic communities. Politicians speaking venomously about border violence and the leech of immigration costs on the state treasury.
Along the streets, Arizonans see day laborers near Wal-Mart and Home Depot parking lots, waiting for work. In some Phoenix-area neighborhoods, Spanish is so predominant both in spoken word and signage that residents complain they feel like they’re in a foreign country.
Then rancher Robert Krentz was gunned down in March while checking water lines on his property near the border. Authorities believe — but have never produced substantive proof — that an illegal immigrant, likely a scout for drug smugglers, was to blame.
Almost immediately Krentz came to symbolize what’s at stake with illegal immigration. Politicians quickly connected the dots, but everyday folks also spoke with anger and fear about the rancher’s death.
“You can’t ignore the damage and the costs to the taxpayers and the disrespect that comes with it and those who think they have a right to break our laws,” says Russell Pearce, the fiery state senator who wrote Arizona’s new immigration law.
Pearce, in fact, is the godfather of anti-illegal immigration sentiment in Arizona and author of many of the tough laws.
He regularly depicts illegal immigration as an “invasion.” He can tick off the names of police officers killed or wounded by criminals in the country illegally.
One of those names is that of his son, Maricopa County Sheriff’s Deputy Sean Pearce, who survived a gunshot wound to the abdomen from an illegal immigrant in 2004 while serving a search warrant in a homicide case.
That might explain Pearce’s indefatigable effort against those entering the country illegally, but he says he held tough views before his son was shot. He insists that his frustration centers more broadly on the crime that immigrant smugglers bring into the country and the financial stress that illegal border-crossers put on communities.
Between 40 percent and 50 percent of all immigrant arrests each year on the U.S.-Mexico border are made in Arizona, according to the U.S. Border Patrol.
And the annual costs? About $600 million for educating illegal immigrants at K-12 schools, more than $120 million for jailing illegal immigrants convicted of state crimes and as much as $50 million that hospitals have to eat for treating illegal border-crossers, according to figures provided by Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Horne, Gov. Jan Brewer’s office and the Arizona Hospital and Healthcare Association.
At Copper Queen Community Hospital, 4 miles north of the border in Bisbee, the emergency room sees one or two illegal immigrants every shift. Dr. Daniel Roe, the emergency-room medical director, says many come in with broken bones from jumping the 15-foot-tall border fence, others suffer from walking for days in the desert with little to no water, and others have been involved in car accidents.
“It’s very much part of our normal flow,” he says. “But it demands resources. So it affects the operating budget.”
Immigrant medical costs led the hospital to shutter a skilled nursing facility and its maternity ward several years ago, according to the hospital’s top administrator.
John Leopard, who camped out with Minuteman Project volunteers during a 2005 patrol north of the border, says he’s not as irritated by seeing day laborers lining street corners as he is the federal government’s inactions and the Justice Department’s lawsuit against Arizona’s new immigration law.
The law requires police who are enforcing other laws to check a person’s immigration status if officers reasonably suspect the person is in the country illegally. It also requires that people carry and produce their immigration papers, while making it a crime for illegal immigrants to solicit work in a public place.
“We have policies that are injurious to our well-being,” says Leopard, a retired computer scientist whose housekeeper was in the country illegally before she was able to obtain U.S. citizenship.
Don Sorchych, editor and publisher of a small local newspaper called the Sonoran News, says over the past 20 years his quaint Phoenix-area town of Cave Creek has seen illegal immigrants set up “villages” made of scrap lumber and canvas.
“I think people confuse racial profiling and being a racist,” Sorchych says. “I’m not saying you should, but if you could profile, you’d be right 95 percent of the time. They wear a certain uniform, certain shoes, gloves in their back pockets, clothes from Goodwill.”
Sorchych got so fired up about illegal immigration that he took photos of people who picked up day laborers and published them.
“I am not so sure it’s the media and politicians who are whipping this up as much as the public,” said Rick Van Schoik, director of Arizona State University’s North American Center for Transborder Studies. “In election years, people who tend toward either extreme want to find passions that their cause would win the election.”
The immigration anger has led the state to pass at least seven laws cracking down on illegal immigration in as many years. Those laws made English the state’s official language, denied bail to illegal immigrants charged with serious crimes and prohibited them from being awarded punitive damages in civil cases.
Opponents of the law say illegal immigrants are being scapegoated and wrongly characterized as freeloaders, pointing out that they pay sales taxes and put money into Social Security that they will never be able to take out.
They say the state’s rapid growth over the last decade couldn’t have happened without immigrant labor, that housing prices have been kept reasonable by those who did work that U.S. citizens wouldn’t — like roofing a new subdivision in Arizona’s 110-degree summer heat.
As Joy Williams of Tucson sees it, immigrants add to the melting pot that is Arizona and are doing jobs Americans don’t want.
Williams, who works as a research clerk in the Pima County Legal Defender’s Office, is also angry — but about what she says is the open racism she’s seen and heard in recent months.
“What is so shocking is people can be so openly verbal about it now and not even flinch,” she says.
Since Arizona passed its new immigration law, immigrant rights groups say Hispanics are seeing more open hostility.
Lydia Guzman, president of the Phoenix-based Hispanic civil rights group Somos America, says community members are reporting racial slurs like never before. She says she experienced it herself in May while waiting in line at a grocery store, when one woman looked at Guzman’s cart and whispered to another, “I wonder how much this is going to cost us?’”
Another group, Puente, said its calls complaining of racial incidents have jumped from about two calls a week to five to six a week.
Lilia Ramos, a 46-year-old illegal immigrant from Acapulco, lodged a complaint with Puente against the Arizona Humane Society in a dispute involving a dog found on her daughter’s property.
Ramos says that when she called the Humane Society to report that the dog didn’t belong to her family, the woman on the other end of the line became angry when Ramos asked if she could speak to someone in Spanish.
“She said, ‘There’s no one. Are you an American citizen?’” Ramos said in Spanish. “I said no, and then she asked if I had a green card, and ‘if you don’t cooperate, we’ll arrest you.’ I was quiet and it really scared me.”
Ramos wonders what her papers had to do with an animal seizure and feels the incident wouldn’t have happened if not for Arizona’s new law.
“I like the United States, but I don’t like Arizona anymore,” she says.