PHOENIX, Arizona — When things got tough in Arizona, many families decided to leave to avoid being caught in the local illegal immigration crackdown. But Maria Garcia’s family wouldn’t move. When her husband was fired for not having legal documents, they stayed and weathered the storm. After 23 years, the Garcias say they’re here to stay.
“My father passed away, he was sick for many years and I couldn’t see him. Now my mother is sick. But I know that if I leave it would be very dangerous for me to come back,” said the migrant from Colima, Mexico.
Two recent national studies present contradicting data about whether the current recession and anti-immigrant climate are pushing undocumented immigrants to leave the U.S. and return to their home countries.
A new report by the Center for Immigration Studies – a group that advocates lower immigration levels – shows that the illegal immigrant population has fallen by one-third over the past two years. According to the study based on Census Data, Arizona is the state with the highest drop. About 180,000 of the 530,000 undocumented living in Arizona left, according to research conducted by Steven Camarota.
Yet another study released earlier by the Pew Hispanic Center said while that the number of people entering the country illegally is dropping, undocumented migrants who are already here are not returning.
So are immigrants leaving or staying?
Community activists in Arizona believe the signs of an exodus were evident especially last year. But rather than returning to their home countries, many families where reportedly moving to other states with less restrictive immigration policies.
The decline was felt in a drop in enrollment in school districts, the shutting down of auto dealers catering to Latinos and abandoned houses in West Phoenix — hit as well by the foreclosure crisis.
A few weeks ago a local chain of supermarkets, Bashas, announced the closing of at least three of its Food City stores in Latino neighborhoods.
“This has devastated the Arizona economy,” said community activist and radio host Carlos Galindo, in reference to the loss in sales tax contributed by immigrant consumers.
Despite the exodus, those who chose to stay, like the Garcias, say they are here for the long run.
“I think we still have a huge amount of people here, I think the numbers might be deceiving,” said Galindo, whose daily show airs on Radio Kasa, a Spanish-language Christian station. “They’re being more cautious about what they do and where they go.”
Galindo, who also runs a document-preparation agency in Phoenix, said he still notices a heavy presence of undocumented immigrants because a lot of his customers disclose their immigration status.
On a Wednesday evening, the parking lot of “Los Perros” is crowded – the popular swap meet is right next door to a dog track, hence its name in Spanish. Drivers occasionally lose their patience and honk, as crowds of families rush under the covered market to get minor relief from 113 degree temperatures.
“Sales have really gone down,” said Elizabeth Fonseca, 36, who helps her sister sell underwear. “You don’t see the same amount of people coming in as before.”
But Yuld Aguilar, 48, another vendor in the market said his shoe business is doing very well.
“Only the cowards left,” Aguilar said, as he turned around to tell someone the price of a pair of tennis shoes. “Those of us who chose to stay are taking advantage of this.”
He feels a lot of people are staying because they’ve already invested too many years in the U.S. and now are hopeful that immigration reform will take place during the Obama administration.
Local media have also played a role in people leaving Arizona by being “muy amarillista,” — too yellow — or sensationalist in their reporting, said Armando Carrera, who sells aguas – Mexican-style juice.
“They scare people. The day they announce a raid the market is empty,” Carrera said, in reference to a recent sweep against undocumented immigrants conducted by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. “In my opinion the mass media are blowing things out of proportion, it’s a double-edged sword.”
The raids in mostly Latino neighborhoods that Sheriff Joe Arpaio calls “crime suppression sweeps,” resulted in a climate of fear in the immigrant community, pushing many to leave. However, the number of people arrested is small compared to the undocumented population, estimated at 500,000.
In the ten sweeps conducted since 2008, 552 people were arrested. Less than half were in the country illegally, and most of those were detained and questioned for minor offenses like a broken taillight or running a stop sign.
Among those arrested in a raid two weeks ago was Mrs. García’s brother in law. He’s back in Mexico now. Her son, a U.S. citizen, was caught in the sweep as well and he says racial profiling took place.
Yet, Mrs. García said she hasn’t changed anything about her lifestyle since the raids started. She spends most of the day looking after her three grandchildren and it doesn’t make any sense for her to go back to Mexico.
“My children need my help here,” she said.
Her daughter is a U.S. citizen and old enough to petition for her legalization. Yet, attorneys warned Garcia she might have to leave the country to do the paperwork, running the risk of being separated from her grandchildren for 10 years — due to a rule that bars undocumented immigrants from reentering the U.S. after they remained illegally in the country. Her only chance might be in the hands of an immigration judge.
“I want to get caught,” she said. “So I can go in front of an immigration judge and get my papers.”