Divided Families

Divided Families: Leaving Arizona,1290


NOTE: Video and a Soundslides presentation are available. 

Cronkite News Service

AVONDALE, Ariz. _ In the corner of a living room in a small house that he rents in this Phoenix suburb, Juan Carlos has piled six black garbage bags stuffed with clothes and housewares along with an old vacuum cleaner.

Juan Carlos, 50, said he will donate some of his possessions to a local church and send others to family in Mexico.

Unable to afford a moving truck and unsure of his future in Arizona, Juan Carlos is preparing to leave behind his wife and daughter, both undocumented immigrants, for a new state and a new life. Juan Carlos, who has a worker visa, declined to give his last name to protect the anonymity of his wife and daughter, who are in Arizona illegally.

“My plan is to go to Utah because I see a lot of problems here,” said Juan Carlos, who has put his house on the market.

When he moved to Arizona with his family more than two years ago, it seemed like the perfect place to live. He found work as a golf course irrigator, and his wife landed a job at the local supermarket. His daughter formed close friendships at a local church.

Yet, increasing hostility towards undocumented immigrants and the fear of repercussions from Arizona’s new employer-sanctions law has motivated Juan Carlos to seek a livelihood elsewhere.

“Our friends are leaving because they don’t want to go to jail or wait for the new law” to be implemented, he said.

The law, which went into effect Jan. 1, requires employers to verify personal information of new hires against an online federal database of Social Security numbers and immigration records. Businesses that knowingly employ undocumented workers can have their business licenses suspended for 10 days for a first offense and permanently revoked for a second offense. States such as Georgia and Colorado have adopted similar laws.

Immigrants and immigration advocates describe a growing anxiety about the new law and increased immigration enforcement. As a result, undocumented immigrants _ in numbers that aren’t clear yet _ are returning to Mexico or moving to Utah, Minnesota or other states where they hope the atmosphere is friendlier.

Juan Carlos has traveled to Utah twice in search of housing, jobs for himself and his wife, Lidia, and schooling for his daughter Monica, 20, who wants to be a photographer. He plans to move first and get settled. He hopes that his wife and daughter will follow later.

The move will pull him farther away from his son Carlos, 25, and other daughter, Carla, 26. Both attend the Sonora Institute of Technology Public University in Sonora, Mexico, and could not be persuaded to come to the United States. But with six of his friends already in jail for immigration-related offenses, Juan Carlos feels like he is running out of options.

“We tried to stay together near Mexico and come to visit them two or three times a year,” Juan Carlos said. “You know, Utah is far away.”

Juan Carlos said he and his family made a decent living as owners of a restaurant in the Mexican state of Sonora. But they left their home more than six years ago after being robbed at gunpoint several times, he said. They came to the United States hoping to find a peaceful life.

“A lot of people came just for a job, to make money and go back,” he said. “But people like us, we try to find a good life, work and peace.”

Juan Carlos eventually hopes to become a U.S. citizen.

“We can lose anything _ the job, money _ but we want peace, and we want a unified family,” said daughter Monica, who has moved with her family 14 times within the United States and Mexico in search of that ideal. “The division of families is too hard. We miss our friends and our family in Mexico, but we’re trying to get a better life for us to live, the American dream.”

Lately, that dream has turned sour amid increasing hostility toward undocumented immigrants. Juan Carlos and his family said they feel unwelcome.

“We feel like we’re in a persecution,” Lidia said in Spanish. “Not every Latin person is a criminal. We work hard, we pay taxes, we are good employees. We feel bad because we don’t know when the police will come to the door and say, ‘Who are you?’”

The number of undocumented immigrants who are thinking about moving away or who have already left is hard to pinpoint, said Luis Sosa, president of the Avondale committee of Immigrants Without Borders. Sosa also owns an automotive repair shop in Avondale.

“This is a big issue because if there’s no work, there’s no reason to be here,” said Sosa, who knows 20 people who have left Arizona. “A lot of people left already, but most of them are waiting to see what’s going to happen, how they’re going to implement (the new law), how it’s going to work.”

Lisa Magana, an Arizona State University associate professor who specializes in trans-border Chicano and Latino studies, said the law is symbolic.

“The law does not make any real provisions for punishing employers and checking to see if identifications are fraudulent,” Magana said in an e-mail.

E-Verify, formerly known as the Basic Pilot Program, cannot detect if an undocumented worker is using someone else’s valid personal information. Employers are required to submit I-9 forms on new hires but can accept documents that appear to be genuine without confirming their validity. Also, the law would forbid employers to use the system to check the citizenship status of current employees.

“The law is currently ineffective, mostly because you can show a fake ID,” Magana said. “We don’t have tamper-proof IDs in the U.S., so it is easy to circumvent.”

While people are waiting to see how the law is enforced, it is already fulfilling its purpose of curbing the number of undocumented immigrants in Arizona, said Ira Mehlman, spokesman for the Federation for American Immigration Reform.

He said the advent of the employer-sanctions law, along with other restrictive policies such as recent state initiatives cracking down on immigration like Proposition 200 and Proposition 300, have made it less appealing for immigrants to migrate illegally to Arizona or for those already in the state to continue to live here.

Proposition 200, passed in 2004, outlawed state services such as welfare for undocumented immigrants as well as making it a requirement to show photo ID to vote. Proposition 300, passed in 2006, left undocumented immigrants unable to receive in-state tuition at a state university or community college.

Workers choosing to leave generally are followed by their families, Mehlman said.

“One of the things I hear people complaining about is that families want to stay together,” Mehlman said. “We can assume that if they want to stay together, the rest of the family will leave with the principal breadwinner.”

Undocumented immigrants fear the division of families not only due to the employer-sanctions law but local police enforcement of federal immigration policies, said Sosa, who has already closed an automotive business he co-owned in Phoenix after police apprehended several undocumented workers.

“It’s a combination that is going to be working altogether, because the state is basically closing its doors to undocumented immigrants,” Sosa said. “These things working together next year is going to be devastating _ a state of chaos.”

Before the full effects of the law are felt, Juan Carlos hopes to be settled in Utah.

“Some place with security and where we won’t have a problem with immigration _ that’s what we’re looking for,” he said.


PHOTOS: Click thumbnails to see full-resolution images and download

Family and friends sing happy birthday to Juan Carlos, 50. Carlos is looking for work in another state because of Arizona’s tougher illegal immigration laws. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Ashley Lowery)

Juan Carlos’ wife, Lidia, hands a slice of cake to her husband as the family gathers for a birthday celebration. The family isn’t sure how much longer they will be together. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Ashley Lowery)

Juan Carlos is thinking of leaving Arizona _ and his family _ to find work in another state. (Cronkite News Service Photo / Ashley Lowery)