Tough Arizona immigration law rattles state's Latinos (+video)

The Arizona immigration law has led some illegal immigrants to move elsewhere. But those who remain, as well as law-abiding Latinos, are worried about discrimination and even indiscriminate immigration sweeps.

By , Correspondent

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    Before SB 1070, day laborers for hire in Chandler, Ariz., like these men, were more plentiful than they are now.
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It's late morning in the Phoenix suburb of Chandler, and the Rev. José González sits behind his church with a handful of day laborers eager for any job offers.

Before Arizona adopted its tough immigration law in April 2010, the day labor center attracted a lot more workers, the pastor says. Fewer come now, and although he says lack of work is a factor, he cites as a major reason the chilling effect the law has had on many local Latinos.

"There's still a lot of uncertainty in the community," says Mr. González.

Recommended: Do you know the facts behind Arizona's immigration law? Take our quiz.

As the US Supreme Court prepares to hear the merits and demerits of Arizona's fiery immigration law, some say the very existence of the legislation – even if not fully implemented – has left an indelible mark on the Grand Canyon State.

Although it's hard to quantify the law's effect, anecdotal evidence suggests Senate Bill 1070, as it is known, caused some to depart for other states and Mexico, home to most of Arizona's estimated 360,000 illegal immigrants. Some say crime is down as a result; others say worry about racial discrimination permeates anew Latino communities. SB 1070 also cost businesses millions because of national boycotts, at least initially, as people elsewhere tagged Arizona as an immigration enforcement zealot.

Stephen Montoya, a civil rights lawyer in Phoenix, is one who says the law has bruised the state and divided the populace.

"SB 1070 did drive a stake in between the people of Arizona – those who were for it, and those who were against it," he says.

But former state Sen. Russell Pearce, the law's architect, lauds SB 1070, saying it accomplished its purpose: driving out illegal immigrants. "Just the threat of SB 1070 has made a difference in Arizona," he says.

Mr. Pearce, who has long attributed a rise in crime to illegal immigrants, says SB 1070 is a big reason rates are down for homicide and other violent crimes. (FBI statistics show the downward crime trend began years before the law passed.) He also says the departure of illegal immigrants will free up jobs for Americans.

Pearce, whose championing of SB 1070 contributed to his losing his seat in a recall election in November, says concerns that the law will lead to racial discrimination are unfounded. He says states have an inherent authority to enforce immigration law; he is confident the Supreme Court will agree.

"All we're doing is removing illegal sanctuary policies, taking the handcuffs off law enforcement, allowing them to do their job," says Pearce, who plans to be at the Supreme Court April 25.

Several of Arizona's top law enforcement officials oppose the law, but Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever is a proponent. He says a high court nod to SB 1070 would send a strong message.

"Arizona will be a less likely place for people to enter across our border," he says. "It already has created something of a snowball effect in other states that have enacted similar laws."

In his family's department stores along the US-Mexican border in Nogales, Ariz., longtime businessman Bruce Bracker says business dropped 50 percent after SB 1070 passed and has picked up only slightly since. His customers come mostly from northern Mexico. "It turned Mexicans away from coming into Arizona to shop," he says.

In Arizona, where 30 percent of residents are Latino, the controversial new law has never been in full effect. A ruling from a federal judge in July 2010 put the kibosh on more than a dozen provisions, including the most controversial, which requires police officers to detain, "when practicable," people they reasonably suspect are in the US illegally. A requirement that people carry immigration papers with them is also on hold.

In heavily Hispanic neighborhoods, where Arizona's long-established Latinos and recent immigrants may live side by side, residents are particularly sensitive about the possibility of indiscriminate immigration sweeps under a fully implemented SB 1070.

In Chandler, whose agricultural fields long have lured immigrant workers, the law rekindles memories of a searing July in 1997 when local police and federal agents swooped in and arrested 432 illegal immigrants – plus several Latino citizens and legal residents.

The raid, which became known as the Chandler Roundup, provoked an outcry from activists. Arizona's attorney general later concluded that authorities had racially profiled residents and violated their rights.

"They were stopping Hispanics who were born and raised in America that didn't even speak Spanish" and demanding proof of legal status, Mr. Montoya recalls.

Mary Romero, a professor at Arizona State University who has written about the roundup, says SB 1070 legitimizes the type of aggressive immigration enforcement seen in 1997 in Chandler.

"Racial profiling is already being used in Arizona, and this is going to strengthen it even more," says the professor, who specializes in social justice issues.

Chandler has since acted to regain the trust of Latino residents, says Leah Powell, the city's community resources diversity manager. Police officers received extensive training and worked to fortify ties with Latino residents.

"It was a way of beginning the healing process with the community after the roundup," she adds.

Newcomers may know little about the roundup, but longtime residents such as Gabriel Arreola remember, and SB 1070 makes him think immigration sweeps could return. He knew individuals and families who left town soon after the law passed, although in some cases it was because they lost their jobs during the recession and faced foreclosure on their homes. Some still in Chandler now stay mostly indoors or shop at night to avoid encounters with police, he adds.

"These are tough times for us Latinos," says Mr. Arreola, who worked illegally in Arizona for years before becoming a legal resident.

At the labor center behind the church, González helps Arreola and other laborers secure work. To him, everyone is equal. He doesn't ask who's legal and who's not, saying that's a matter for the workers and those who hire them.

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