Photo Illustration: Phillip Toledano
"Let them come here the legal way."
That is the chief criticism leveled at undocumented immigrants. On the surface it makes sense—fill out your forms, submit your papers, and let the legal process take its course. And yet it is so hopelessly tangled, and the wait list so long, it can grind on for a lifetime—or longer. By one estimate, it could take some Mexicans 131 years to get to the front of the line.
But conditions in their home country have grown so dire, the incentive to flee can be intense. Nearly half the Mexican population lives below the poverty line. Jobs are scarce, one of the country's growth industries being the drug trade: Small businesses in northern and central Mexico have closed as a result of cartel-bred violence, while the surviving ones are forced to pay "protection" fees to drug gangs. Last year alone, some 12,000 people were killed in drug-related violence. With newspapers carefully tracking the mayhem, including kidnappings and beheadings, it's no surprise that Mexico's tourist industry has taken a hit as well.
On this side of the border, the struggling economy and loss of jobs have made many Americans less than hospitable to foreigners in search of work. Tensions have been mercilessly stoked by a cast of fearmongering pundits and politicians—from one-time mild-mannered CNN host turned immigration rabble-rouser Lou Dobbs to Arizona senator John McCain, who'd counseled humane treatment of illegal immigrants and derided building a border fence—until attempting to shore up his conservative base while running for president in 2008. In this year's primary season, Herman Cain proposed erecting electrified fences, to applause from his supporters. Then there is Joe Arpaio, the swaggering five-term sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, known for aggressive racial profiling, currently under investigation for abuse-of-power allegations. As for Arizona's governor, Jan Brewer, she has been unstinting in her criticism of undocumented immigrants, routinely referring to them as "criminals," linking them to (imaginary) Stateside beheadings (a claim she was later forced to recant), and staunchly backing the bill known as SB 1070.
Passed in April 2010, SB 1070 (drafted with the help of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, designated a "hate group" by the civil rights nonprofit Southern Poverty Law Center) makes it a crime in the state of Arizona for immigrants not to carry identification papers at all times. Officers are supposed to ask for papers only during a so-called lawful detention, arrest, or stop, which can include the most minor of traffic infractions; as such, a broken taillight or driving a few miles under the speed limit could potentially thrust an immigrant into deportation proceedings.
In July 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice sued Arizona, calling SB 1070 unconstitutional, and a federal district court judge granted a preliminary injunction. The Supreme Court is examining the state's right to establish its own immigration policy this spring; a verdict is expected by summer. No matter the outcome, the climate that begat SB 1070 has already wreaked havoc. While border apprehensions have actually declined in recent years due to fewer migrants crossing, annual deportations of immigrants already living in the U.S. nearly doubled between 2000 and 2011. And it's not just bad guys being driven out but, in large measure, law-abiding contributors to the economy, like the men who leaf-blow your yard, tile your bathroom, cook your restaurant food. The women who vacuum your floors, take your lunch orders, burp your babies. The kids who play soccer, dream of college, and don't even speak Spanish, having lived here since infancy.
Church leaders in Arizona told members of Congress that SB 1070 has led to a 30 percent drop in attendance in some congregations. Local businesses have also reported declines in customer traffic, and schools have seen hundreds of children withdrawn from class. In 2010 the think tank Center for American Progress estimated that Arizona lost at least $141 million in tourism alone due to SB 1070. Fear may be an effective means of control, but it is bad for business.
Still, support for the measure remains widespread, thanks largely to inaccurate perceptions of the undocumented—that they drain social services, don't pay taxes, take away jobs, bring crime to our towns. Generally speaking, none of this is true: Most undocumented workers pay property, sales, and payroll taxes like Social Security, even though few will be able to claim their benefits upon retirement. To the notion that they steal jobs, a 2006 Pew Hispanic Center national study found no consistent relationship between the employment rate of native-born Americans and the number of immigrants living among them. As for the supposed immigrant crime wave, a University of Colorado study finds that the foreign born might be responsible for a 9.3 percent decline in homicides and a 22.2 percent decrease in robbery rates; in fact, the cities with the largest influx of immigrants saw the steepest drop in crime.
"I didn't used to think I was a criminal," Anna says, vexed. "I was an immigrant like any other." But perception has a way of being taken for fact. Anna has been called dirty. She has been told she is a "rat." A "dog." She has been snarled at by white checkout girls at the grocery, hissing at her to "speak English!" (She does.) At the park with her son, she has seen old men lift their jackets to reveal pistols tucked inside. She has been screamed at while walking down the street, told to get out of the U.S. She has been spit on in front of her children.
Still, she loves this country.
There is a saying in Mexico about America. "Everything is better there." Children are raised hearing this phrase, uttered with ultimate conviction, the way true believers talk about heaven.
For immigrants, heaven is minimum wage. Heaven is clean water. Heaven is an end to the constant threat of violence. For people like Anna, the heaven bar is pretty darn low, which is why so many immigrants embrace the thankless jobs most native-born Americans refuse to consider. If you can find paradise working in a meatpacking plant or emptying bedpans, imagine what your hell must have looked like.
Now imagine raising your children there.
What would you do to escape?
What wouldn't you do?
When Anna arrived, her mother petitioned for a visa for her daughter. The documents are in process, but the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) and the State Department are currently reviewing requests like hers dating back to 1993. So Anna waits. And while she does, she remains at risk. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time could lead to her deportation. She learned this firsthand in March 2010.
We Hear You!