07.31.10

Adios, Arizona

A judge may have stayed the harshest provisions of the state’s new immigration law, but that hasn’t stopped the flow of scared migrants into New Mexico.

In the late afternoon of July 29, after hundreds of marchers and protesters had taken to the streets of Phoenix in opposition to Arizona immigration policies, a 20-year-old college student posted a Facebook update via her mobile phone: Just saw the “Welcome to New Mexico” sign :D

“Martina,” the Facebook poster, her 19-year-old brother and their parents are unauthorized immigrants who moved from Phoenix to Albuquerque, New Mexico on the day the law went into effect. A series of increasingly harsh immigration laws enacted in Arizona, culminating with the passage of SB 1070 in April, prompted the family’s decision to join what some officials say is a steady exodus of unauthorized immigrants from Arizona—an outmigration that has continued even after a federal judge in Phoenix slammed the brakes on key elements of the harshest state immigration law on July 27.

“We feel so much safer, there’s no racism here,” says a 19-year-old unauthorized migrant who moved to Albuquerque from Arizona last month.

Some, of course, have fled across the border to Mexico. Others have traveled to Utah, Washington state, Pennsylvania— even Illinois. But like Martina, many of the Arizona refugees have moved to New Mexico—a destination increasingly popular among Arizona’s anxious population of undocumented immigrants, according to two government officials familiar with migrant populations who spoke with The Daily Beast on the condition of anonymity, and interviews with dozens of Arizona immigrants.

Martina’s family began making plans to move to New Mexico shortly after SB 1070 was passed in April, because many friends had already moved there and sent glowing reports back to Arizona.

New Mexico is an attractive alternative, for several reasons beyond its proximity next door to Arizona. New Mexico, unlike Arizona, issues driver's licenses to undocumented immigrants who live there and have ID cards from the Mexican consulate. (Indeed, the New Mexico Department of Taxation and Revenue, which oversees the Motor Vehicle Department, reports a 30 percent increase in the number of new licenses issued by the state this spring over the same period last year. Asked whether this might be due to a migration from Arizona, S.U. Mahesh, the spokesman for the New Mexico MVD, said, “We can’t speculate.”)

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And New Mexico also allows unauthorized migrants to pay in-state college tuition, while Arizona bars most unauthorized immigrants from attending college by forcing them to pay expensive out-of-state tabs.

What’s more, immigrants feel safer in New Mexico, because unlike the Grand Canyon State on its western border, it has not enacted human-smuggling and employer-sanctions laws that have criminalized hundreds of them for working or travelling through Arizona.

“We feel so much safer, there’s no racism here,” says a 19-year-old unauthorized migrant who moved to Albuquerque from Arizona last month. Her father, who had been a cowboy on a ranch in Arizona, now works for a landscaping company.

The more immigrant-friendly environment may be tied to New Mexico’s demographic makeup: 45 percent of its two million people are Latino, compared with a 30 percent Latino population among Arizona’s 6.6 million residents.

New Mexico may also offer better job prospects. The Bureau of Labor Statistics has Arizona’s June unemployment rate at 9.7 percent, compared with 8.5 percent in New Mexico.

But Larry Waldman, a senior research scientist for the Bureau of Business and Economic Research at the University of New Mexico, warns that that doesn’t mean his state is a land of opportunity. “This is not a good situation for immigrants in New Mexico. The jobs are just not here,” he says.

Outgoing New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson, an Hispanic Democrat, has taken a markedly different approach to immigration issues from GOP Governor Jan Brewer, his counterpart in Arizona, who signed SB 1070 into law.

Richardson has long supported what Brewer derides as “amnesty” for unauthorized immigrants (though like Brewer, he advocates tighter border enforcement). In the wake of the still-unsolved murder of an Arizona borderlands rancher on March 27, widely blamed on a Mexican narco, Richardson sent New Mexico National Guard troops to the New Mexico-Mexico border, while Brewer hammered the Obama administration to send guardsmen to the Arizona-Mexico border at federal expense. (President Obama buckled to Brewer and vowed to send 524 guardsmen to the border, but the troops have yet to arrive.)

Richardson also rubbed Brewer’s nose in a diplomatic mess caused by the SB 1070 controversy. After Mexican leaders refused to attend a conference of border governors in Arizona, citing SB 1070, Brewer, its host, was forced to cancel the meeting. Richardson subsequently arranged to host the long-scheduled session in September—in New Mexico.

The movement from Arizona to New Mexico is one subject that Richardson would rather not talk about. Richardson’s spokesman, Gilbert Gallegos, refused to comment on “anecdotal evidence” about the reported surge.

Of course, most information about the undocumented is anecdotal, since this is a population that fears being counted. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that in 2009, about 10.8 million unauthorized immigrants lived in the United States; about 460,000 lived in Arizona before SB 1070 was passed.

It’s anyone’s guess how many live in Arizona today.

Martina and her family plan on getting their driver’s licenses just as soon as they find a place to live in Albuquerque. They won’t set foot in Arizona, not even to retrieve their furniture in storage, until they have licenses. They still fear that not having a license would trigger an immigration inquiry if they’re stopped by the cops for a minor traffic violation, even after Federal Judge Susan Bolton’s ruling, which will get a hearing at the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in November.

“People like me aren’t welcome in Arizona,” she says.

Martina figures New Mexico will be her hideout until she can join the workforce legally. For years, she’s hung her hopes on proposed federal legislation called the Dream Act, which would offer temporary legal residency to those unauthorized immigrants under the age of 35 who were brought to the country illegally as children, graduated from high school, have no criminal records, and wish to serve in the military or attend college. The legislation has been introduced repeatedly in Congress, but never passed. Now an internal Department of Homeland Security memo details possible options for circumventing congressional immigration-reform paralysis, and floats the idea of the DHS offering “deferred relief” to those who fall under the Dream Act umbrella.

Like Martina.

In the meantime, she knows the road to a comfortable life in New Mexico might be a little bumpy, since the family’s savings total about $1,000. Nevertheless, she’s vowed to attend the University of New Mexico as soon as she can afford it. She hopes to be a geneticist. Her family plans on paying the in-state tuition. Her mother figures she can clean offices and homes, and her father hopes to find work as a kitchen countertop builder.

They built a life in Phoenix after starting out almost penniless eight years ago after jumping the border fence, so the New Mexico move seems tame by comparison.

“We did it when we came to Arizona, and we can do it again,” she says.

Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at terrygreenesterling.com. Her book, ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, was published July 1 by the Globe Pequot Press.