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Who gets swept in immigration sweep?

By Kathy KhourySpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 2, 1999


On a summer day as hot as a soldering iron, Catalina Reyes was driving through her hometown of Chandler, Ariz., when she was stopped by police.

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The authorities asked Ms. Reyes for her immigration papers. As a native-born Arizonan, she didn't have any. By her account, the police then pulled her from the car and placed her in handcuffs - not letting her go until she happened to curse at them in English.

Reyes's account of that fateful day in July 1997 lies at the heart of a sensitive immigration dispute that may presage a new, social divide in suburban America. Reyes was detained twice as part of an immigration sweep conducted by local police and the US Border Patrol. They were hoping to stem what they consider a "tidal wave" of illegal immigration flowing into the rapidly growing Phoenix suburb.

The five-day dragnet netted 432 undocumented immigrants. But in the process, dozens of Hispanic residents, both US citizens and legal immigrants, say they were stopped, questioned, and detained as well - just because they "looked Mexican."

The result is a collision here amid the saguaro and creosote over two fundamental forces: the need to protect people's civil rights, and the need to control the nation's borders. Indeed, since the sweep was conducted 18 months ago, it has spawned numerous protest marches, four investigations, and two lawsuits - one involving Reyes.

While the issue of how far the police should go in curbing illegal immigration is always a sensitive one, the dispute in Chandler has defined it in particularly sharp lines.

The city represents a clash of cultures between what has been a largely Hispanic, agricultural town and a newer, more affluent high-tech center - the self-proclaimed capital of "Silicon Desert."

In an exaggerated way, it symbolizes tensions that are surfacing in many boom towns across the American West. Rapid growth - from expanding suburbs and increasing immigration, both legal and illegal - is creating an uneasy alliance of varied economies and perceptions.

Population boom

With about 160,000 residents, Chandler is the second-fastest growing city in the United States among those with populations over 100,000. Most of the 18 percent of the city's population who are Hispanic continue to live in the city's center, which was originally modeled after a Mexican village.

But recent growth has been fueled by high-tech firms like Intel and Motorola. In recent years, the cotton fields and citrus groves surrounding the city have given way to wide, palm-lined streets and modern stucco-and-tile homes to accommodate the new influx of better-educated, more affluent, predominantly Anglo households.

But the changing demographics have not slowed the tide of immigration. Ron Sanders, chief patrol agent for the Border Patrol's Tucson sector, calls Chandler "the first or second most notorious staging site for aliens in the world" with well-established smuggling routes and drop houses where illegal immigrants are housed.

As many as 70,000 legal and illegal immigrants pass through Chandler on their way to other parts of the country, Sanders says. Many stay just long enough to earn enough money for the next leg of their trip. Others never leave.

Popular with immigrants

Officials cite many reasons for Chandler's continued popularity with illegal immigrants. One reason is the city's location - about 120 miles north of the Mexican the border with easy access to Interstate 10 and Sky Harbor International airport.

Another is the economy. Where illegal immigrants once found plentiful work in the fields, now they find a similar demand in construction. Still others come to the city because of ties to Mexican-American families who immigrated previously.

The idea for the Roundup sprang from Operation Restoration, an effort to revitalize the city's impoverished downtown.

Operation Rest-oration was the result of a neighborhood task force that was mostly concerned with improving property maintenance in the downtown area by cracking down on city code violations.