Immigration Issues Nothing New

Arizona experienced changes even before statehood, even before it was called Arizona.

In 1848, the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo put an end to the US-Mexican war. Mexico conceded a northern territory that included New Mexico, California and Arizona, and parts of what became Utah, Colorado and Nevada. As compensation, the United States paid $15 million to Mexico.

US Mexico borderThe border between the United States and Mexico separates the sister cities of Nogales, Ariz., and Nogales, Mexico, at the Arizona port of entry.
Photo by Bastien Inzaurralde

For Mexicans, the situation has also changed. Thousands now find themselves illegal immigrants in Arizona, a place that was part of their country until the mid-19th century.

In the past few years, a series of state laws have put an emphasis on fighting illegal immigration. Although SB 1070 is the law that drew most attention to Arizona, other bills also have influenced illegal immigrants' lives.

The Legal Arizona Workers Act, which went into effect Jan. 1, 2008, aims to penalize business owners who knowingly hire undocumented workers. The sanctions can include the suspension or revocation of business licenses.

Ismael's experience is a case in point. Ismael, a 28-year-old undocumented immigrant from the Mexican state of Chihuahua who asked to be referred to by his first name only, has been in the United States since 1997. He works in the construction industry. And his boss could be charged under the Legal Employers Act.

Ismael said his boss knows he is undocumented and pays him in cash because Ismael doesn't have a Social Security number.

HB 2008, another Arizona state law, has also led Ismael to make some adjustments with his life.

The law went into effect Nov. 24, 2009, and requires employees of the Arizona Department of Economic Security to report undocumented immigrants who apply for public benefits. The law indicates that "failure to report discovered violations of federal immigration law by an employee" is a Class 2 misdemeanor.

During an interview in a Mesa church, Ismael said he applied to AHCCCS—Arizona's Medicaid—for his children, who were born in the United States. However, he didn't apply for nutrition and cash assistance even though his daughter and his son are eligible for those programs as U.S. citizens—they were born on U.S. territory.

Man and woman enter ArizonaA man and a woman enter Arizona from Nogales, Mexico, at the US port of entry.
Photo by Bastien Inzaurralde

Ismael said he was afraid of the potential consequences if he applied for other types of aid for his 11-year-old daughter, Leslie, and his 4-year-old son, Ismael Jr.

"I fear that they'll investigate my [immigration] status," he said.

Ismael is in the middle of a deportation case. In August, he was arrested for driving under influence of alcohol and spent two weeks in jail, he said. In April, a court is scheduled to decide whether he can remain in the United States.

Ismael doesn't complain about his situation. He said he was happy to have a job. Asked what he expected for his children, he replied: "A different future."

The office of Arizona House Speaker Kirk Adams, R-Mesa, who sponsored HB 2008, didn't return e-mails and phone calls asking for comment. Two co-sponsors of the bill also declined to answer questions, and a third left requests for information unanswered.

Critics of HB 2008 say it can harm U.S. citizens, particularly children born to undocumented immigrants, and deny them benefits for which they are actually eligible.

Kat Rodriguez, coordinator of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, or Coalition of Human Rights, a Tucson-based immigrants rights group, said the risk is that children are being kept away from health care even though the eligibility requirements haven't changed.

"We are not talking about undocumented immigrants who are given a free ride," Rodriguez said in a phone interview. "We are talking about undocumented mothers of U.S. children. So, ultimately, it is U.S. children who are dramatically affected."

Customs agentsUS Customs and Border Protection agents conduct inspections on the Arizona side of the Nogales border.
Photo by Bastien Inzaurralde

As are their parents.

The life of Maria, a 25-year-old undocumented Mexican mother of three, has changed after the enactment of recent legislation by the Arizona government.

Maria moved to the U.S. from the state of Veracruz in 2003. She has three children, Brandley, 2, Leslie, 4, and Luis, 5.

In December 2009, Maria sought to renew the AHCCCS program for her three children. She said state employees refused to renew the benefits for them, however, because she wasn't working.

"They said I had to sign a sheet of paper in English so that you declare you are not from here," Maria said. "I didn't want to sign anything. They said they could not proceed with my application because I didn't want to cooperate."

Her case subsequently appeared on the Spanish-speaking TV channel Univision. An AHCCCS employee saw her on TV and made contact with her, Maria said. She said the employee asked her to send her information by fax so that she did not need to go to an agency to apply.

Lisa Magana, a political scientist at ASU's School of Transborder Studies, said many immigration laws in Arizona are designed to discourage immigration and scare illegal immigrants.

"It is my belief that many are created not to work or [to be] effective," she said in a phone interview. "You have a large proportion of the population that can't vote … so it's easy to target them or scapegoat them."

According to Magana, those pieces of legislation aim to keep voters' attention away from other current problems such as the state of the economy.

"It's intentional to use immigrants as targets … that is historical," she added. "That deflects from other issues."

—Bastien Inzaurralde

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