Borderline racism drives Hispanic exodus

MEXICO’S neighbour is cracking down on illegal immigrants.

IT is 44C in the shade and fat beads of sweat fall from Jose Armendarez’s neck as he sifts through the neat rows of tools. “Cuanto es?” he asks their owner, Miguel, over the roar of the Mexico-Argentina soccer match playing on the television in the driveway. Miguel shrugs wearily. “What can you give me?”

Miguel’s yard sale, the sad disposal of accumulated family possessions and memories, is one of hundreds taking place in rundown Hispanic suburbs across Arizona.

Nineteen years after he risked his life and crossed the border illegally from Mexico to find work building the villas and shopping malls of Arizona’s real estate boom, Miguel is leaving. In four weeks, Arizona will become the first state in the US to criminalise the presence of illegal immigrants and Miguel is not waiting.

Everything is up for sale, from his three children’s toys to his blackened barbecue. He will keep only what can be packed in the car for the long drive to his sister’s cramped house outside Houston, Texas. “Maybe Texas will bring in the same law,” he says sadly. “But we have nowhere else to go.”

As recession bites across the US, no issue has soared higher on the political agenda than immigration, and nowhere more so than in Arizona. The frontier state with a 1120km border with Mexico has lost patience with Washington’s repeated failure to tackle illegal immigration and taken matters into its own hands, sparking a political firestorm and renewed national debate over an issue that strikes deep at the heart of what it means to be American.

The nation’s relationship with its illegal workers is complex. An estimated 11 million people, the vast majority Latin Americans, live within its borders, doing the unskilled, low-paid jobs that most Americans will not. The act of being an undocumented worker in the US is not itself a crime – although crossing the border illegally is – but that will change in Arizona on July 29 when SB1070 comes into force: a law obliging police to check the documents of anyone they suspect of being in the US illegally. Those caught will go to jail rather than be handed over to immigration officers or deported, as in the past.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio can hardly wait. Known as “America’s toughest sheriff”, he has already instituted policies that critics call racist and legally questionable. SB1070 will remove many of those questions. “Before, we’ve had to turn over illegals to immigration,” he says. “Now I’m going to book them into jail.”

Arpaio has been going after illegal immigrants since 2006, flooding Latino neighbourhoods with deputies and members of his volunteer “posse” to round up undocumented workers but until now has had to rely on creative interpretations of law to get them into jail. Thus, desperate migrants who give their life savings to people-smugglers become trafficking co-conspirators and minor traffic infractions escalate into cause for a stay in his infamous “Tent City” jail.

Arpaio put up the canvas prison to fulfil a pledge that no offender would escape jail because of a lack of space. Its population is overwhelmingly Hispanic. “There’s a lot of illegals in those tents and I’m going to get a lot more in there when this law comes in,” he says.

“I already put new tents up. I’m getting ready.”

Arizona Governor Jan Brewer says the law is intended to make illegals leave. They are – but few are going back to Mexico. Miguel, whose children are US citizens, is going to Texas; others are bound for California, Utah, New Mexico – anywhere that doesn’t have “the law”.

It may yet follow them. At least 20 other states are considering similar laws and several cities elsewhere have brought in targeted measures, even as Los Angeles, with its large, politically active Hispanic communities, slaps an economic boycott on Arizona.

The fear sweeping through the community is palpable. At St Martin’s, Sunday’s Spanish-language mass was followed by a crisis meeting where trainers briefed congregants on what to do if stopped by police. “Don’t panic, don’t pretend – plan,” a flipchart reads. “I choose to remain silent,” the class parrots back in heavily accented English. “I want to see a lawyer.”

From their pews, the congregants speak of the fear and vigilantism springing up ahead of the law. Children are bullied in school, facing calls of “go home, dirty Mexican”. Rent supervisers are extorting money from tenants under threat of being reported; wages are being withheld by unscrupulous employers. “Racial profiling has become the official policy of the state of Arizona,” said Connie Andersen, a co-ordinator for the Valley Interfaith project. She believes the law is aimed at distracting voters from the real issue: that Arizona is bankrupt. It tolerated illegal immigrants while their labour fuelled its boom; now it has turned on them.

Armendarez, a legal immigrant, wonders who will cut the lawns and tar the roofs of Arizona’s retirement communities once his countrymen are gone. “I’m not saying Arizonans are lazy but I don’t see them lining up to do that work in the heat,” he said.

The law has broad support among Americans – as high as 70 per cent. A majority, however, also supports an amnesty for illegal immigrants and a path to legal citizenship. Michael Bloomberg, New York’s Republican Mayor, has warned that his city’s economy would collapse without the input of undocumented workers.

“I want to work legally,” says Mario Alvarez, a Tent City inmate facing drugs charges, “but nobody will let me.”

It was never his choice to come to the US – he was four months old when his mother brought him through the desert and across the border. “Five months earlier and I’d have been born a citizen,” he said ruefully.

Such is the bitterness of the debate that even that sacred principle, of citizenship by birth, is under assault by conservatives, who accuse illegal immigrants of spawning “anchor babies” to gain a foothold in the US.

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