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07.30.10

Migrants in Limbo

A judge blocked the harshest aspects of Arizona’s new law, turning planned protests into a victory party. Bryan Curtis talks to undocumented immigrants about why they can’t rest easy.

For immigrant advocates in Arizona, Thursday, July 29, went from a day of potential disaster to one of celebration. Judge Susan Bolton gutted most of Senate Bill 1070, which ordered police officers to inquire about the immigration status of those they deemed suspicious. The question on the lips of protesters and politicians was: How big was the victory?

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Angela and Sofia, two Mexican-born house cleaners, were my focus group. Angela is 51 years old. She has an elegant bearing and looked almost regal in a black-and-white dress. Sofia, 41, is shorter and rounder and quick to crack a joke. Both are undocumented immigrants who have been living under the radar in Tucson, Arizona for more than a decade. To hear about their predicaments is to see exactly how much, and how little, was won in court this week.

We met in a small house belonging to a friend of theirs in South Tucson and sat around a table that was draped with a checkerboard cloth. The women were nervous at first—they rarely ventured far from home except for work, they said—but soon, speaking through an interpreter, they began to open up. Both had been floored by Bolton’s decision Wednesday. Angela said she could hardly bear to watch the news. Sofia smiled and retorted, “I watched the news every day so I would be ready to run.”

Indeed, after 1070 was signed in April, Angela and Sofia, like a lot of undocumented Arizonans, put their lives on wheels. Both considered fleeing if the law went into effect. Three weeks ago, Sofia even sent her 4-year-old daughter back to Sonora, Mexico, figuring she could meet her child there. (She’s now trying to get the child back.) Angela signed over the power of attorney for her 15-year-old daughter to her daughter’s American godparents, on the increasingly likely chance she would wind up in a Border Patrol van. For the first time in years, vanishing seemed like an option.

On the plus side, Bolton’s decision ended that feeling of terror. Now, the women could turn back to their thorny immigration cases. Sofia came here illegally 20 years ago and has three kids, a 16- and 13-year-old in addition to the four-year-old. All the kids were born in Arizona, so they, unlike their mother, are American citizens. Angela came to the United States 15 years ago. Of her four children, only one, the 15-year-old, is a citizen. Angela said she was engaged to an American. “I’m marrying him out of great love,” she told me. “But I said to him, ‘You need to make sure my documents are fixed.’”

Another clear effect of 1070’s defeat was that it had stirred a new Hispanic civil rights movement. “1070 was the match that ignited the stick of dynamite,” said Richard Martinez, a Tucson civil rights attorney. Asked what she made of Gov. Jan Brewer, Sofia replied, “I don’t even want to see her.” Angela concurred. Among Spanish-speaking 1070 opponents, I heard Brewer referred to this week as la bruja—a Spanish rendering of her last name that means “the witch.”

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Equally villainous, and more articulately so, was Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County. Arapaio had appeared in the midst of an apparently crushing defeat Wednesday to declare he would continue hunting the undocumented in something he called “ Operation 1070.” A protester in Phoenix said with resignation, “If we appreciate him as an entertainer, he’s actually very entertaining.”

Arpaio’s defiance was not just a sideshow, however. Part of SB 1070’s downfall was that its standard for police questioning—“reasonable suspicion”—was deemed exceedingly vague. “As far as questioning someone, how am I going to determine that?” Martin Escobar, a Tucson police officer who sued the state over the law, told me on Thursday.

But as any immigration attorney will tell you, if Arizona police officers can’t inquire about citizenship themselves, they can always call the Border Patrol to do it for them. Meaning, even without 1070, Sofia and Angela fear that a simple question from the police—“May I see your driver’s license?”—will start a chain of phone calls that will land them back in Mexico. Sofia’s Mexican driver’s license expired five years ago. When I asked Angela if she had a license, she reached into an overstuffed wallet and pulled out a pink card with her photograph on it—a Sonoran license. She’d ordered it suspiciously easily, through an unnamed intermediary, and she admitted she had no idea if it was real.

So the fear of being questioned and arrested persists, if not quite as acutely. Angela was in a fender-bender about four months ago—not her fault, she insisted—and a police officer asked to see Arizona ID. When Angela didn’t respond, the officer threatened to call the Border Patrol. But Angela’s 15-year-old was wailing in pain from the accident, so the officer dismissed the two to go to the hospital. Later, Angela’s daughter said, “Mommy, I’m not hurt. I’m just yelling so you won’t get deported.”

It wasn’t a bad metaphor for Wednesday’s ruling. The victory in court hadn’t brought any immigrants out of the shadows; it merely allowed them, after a lot of yelling, to stay there. “I’d rather not succumb to the fear,” Angela told me. “I’m not going to be an animal under a rock.” We said our goodbyes, and then Angela looked both ways up and down the street before hurrying to her car.

Bryan Curtis is a senior editor at The Daily Beast. He was a columnist at Play: The New York Times Sports Magazine, Slate, and Texas Monthly, and has written for GQ, Outside, and New York. Write him at bryan.curtis at thedailybeast.com.