The Year in Review: Arizona Immigrants Face New Year With Old Fears

Phoenix, Arizona – For Arizona immigrants 2009 was the year of raids in workplaces, traffic stops that led to deportations and reports of violations of human and civil rights.

“This past year was tragic for immigrants in Arizona,” said Linda Herrera, director of Unidos en Arizona a pro-immigrant grassroots group. The organization has been helping families develop emergency plans in case a member is deported or looses their job because of stricter laws.

“Next year will have to be about uniting,” she added.

Arizona made national headlines all year long largely because of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The self-proclaimed America toughest sheriff went after undocumented employees at their workplaces and conducted raids in Latino neighborhoods. When the federal government took away some of his immigration powers under a 287(g) agreement he remained defiant.

2010 may see a change in the political tone of the immigration debate in Arizona. A Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation over allegations of civil rights violations by the sheriff’s office it’s expected to be concluded. Yet, the nature of any actions taken by the DOJ will be at a civil level in the form of an agreement.

But most political observers are expecting stronger actions by the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) that is reportedly investigating Arpaio over suspected political retaliation and abuse of power. There is also an Arizona attorney general investigation of alleged illegal political contributions by upper level officers in the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.

“I think in 2010, we’ll see an absolute change and Arpaio will have to retire and fold his cards,” said Carlos Galindo, a pro-immigrant activist and political commentator on radio station KAZA.

Even if Arpaio scales back his crackdowns on immigrants, members of the state legislature have vowed to continue to create tougher measures aimed at the undocumented population. Republican Senator Russell Pearce announced last October that he would press for the passage of a bill that will allow local law-enforcement officers throughout the state to arrest undocumented immigrants.

Pearce said that if the bill fails in the legislature he will take it directly to Arizona voters who traditionally have supported anti-immigrant initiatives.

For many immigrant families 2009 was a year for making a choice between remaining in the United States or facing the economic challenges in the country they left, in some cases decades ago. The climate of uncertainty that led many to struggle with this decision has intensified as a new law aimed at denying public benefits to undocumented immigrants took effect last Nov. 24th.

While some people continue to hope for immigration reform that will legalize their status, others have decided its time to return to their home-country, even if they no longer can call it home.

Marcela Vázquez, 33, decided to return to Mexico after a decade of living in the U.S. She has three children to maintain on her own, since her husband was deported over 4 months ago.

“We’ve hoped none of this would happen to us,” said Vázquez who will be returning to Oaxaca, one of Mexico’s poorest states. “My children tell me they don’t want to go to a place they’ve never known.”

Not everybody can take the chance of leaving, said Herrera, director of Unidos en Arizona.

“Some people have children born in this country that have special needs and can’t get the care anywhere else,” said Herrera. “Some people have lived pretty much their entire life here, they open up a business. This is their life investment”

What is certain for some is that these immigrants will be missed.

“When industries start to pick up next year, we’ll notice the gap specially in industries where the immigrant labor was more prevalent,” said Edmundo Hidalgo, executive director and CEO of Chicanos por la Causa, a local non-profit that serves Latino and immigrant communities.

Hidalgo believes as many as 200,000 migrants left the state during 2009. A report by the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS) estimated that the undocumented population in Arizona has decreased from half a million people to 300,000 based on U.S census data.

Mexican consular authorities in Phoenix processed this year 1,048 school transfer documents for the children of families that are returning to Mexico. The previous year it was 1,534 up from 330 on 2007.

Socorro Cordova, a spokesperson for the Phoenix Mexican Consulate said that the number of people returning seems to have stabilized over the past two years. But many migrants are choosing to move within the United States to areas like New Mexico and Texas where policies towards migrants are believed to be more relaxed.

Yet, some hold on to the hope that the New Year will bring changes to U.S. immigration laws.

“It’s tough here, but in Mexico it’s much worse,” said Maria Montoya, an undocumented mother of five children whose husband was deported. “The last thing you loose is faith, I hope Obama does something for us.”

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.