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Is the anxiety over Arizona's immigration law justified? Depends on whom you ask

Some residents say the law's been blown out of proportion. But even naturalized citizens and longtime residents find reason to fear — out-of-date ID photos or lingering Spanish accents, for example.

May 10, 2010|By Hector Tobar

I'm my mother's only son. That means I have to be on my toes when Mother's Day rolls around.

So when the name of my querida madre popped up in my e-mail last week I snapped to attention. She lives thousands of miles away but still keeps close tabs on me. I opened her e-mail, expecting to field the usual questions about her grandchildren and my health.

Instead, my mother asked me about Arizona.

The Grand Canyon State has been on her mind lately. She used to live in Sedona and still has many friends in northern Arizona. In fact, she was planning on visiting them next month.

She's back in her native Guatemala now — it's cheaper there for a retiree — but travels frequently to the U.S. After many hours at home watching reports about Arizona on Fox News, CNN and CNN en Español on her satellite TV, she was deeply worried. A kind of madness had overtaken her old home state. It was up in arms over immigration.

"I don't want to take the risk that they'll hear my accent, look at me suspiciously and take away my U.S. passport, thinking that it's false," she wrote.

My mother has been a naturalized U.S. citizen since 1971. She can write and speak English perfectly well. But like many naturalized Americans, she hasn't quite shaken the Spanish from her tongue. And she seemed to think that this might cause Arizona police to single her out.

As is now well known among those concerned about immigration and immigrants, Arizona's SB 1070 allows local authorities to demand proof of legal residency from those who might fall under "reasonable suspicion" of being illegal immigrants.

When we talked on the phone my mother asked me directly: "Do you think I should go?"

I suggested we call her friends in Arizona and ask them.

"Oh, golly sakes, no one's going to bother your mother," Herb Dyer exclaimed over the phone. Dyer, a retiree, and his wife, Marilyn, still live on the same block where my mother used to live — on a street overlooking Sedona's famous red rocks.

Back in her Sedona days, my mother was just another American suburbanite, living with her husband in a brand-new subdivision. The Dyers lived next door.

"She's got her citizenship," Dyer said. "Why would she be afraid?"

That's actually a very good question, one I'd also posed to my mother. I asked her why she thought an officer might confiscate her passport.

"Because I don't look like my picture," she said.

Hearing about my mother's trepidation made Herb Dyer angry — at the bill's many critics, who've been protesting and marching quite frequently in Phoenix.

"They're just blowing this whole thing out of proportion," he said. "It's a sad situation. . . . We have people that are good Mexicans, who do good work." A lot of Arizonans are mad over the immigrants in the jails, he said. But as for my mother, "she's not going to be doing anything that a police officer is going to be noticing."

A lot of people in northern Arizona would agree with Herb. My mother is not much taller than 5 feet and could not be mistaken for a criminal threat by even the most paranoid law officer.

Next I called my mother's compadres in Cottonwood, about 20 miles southwest of Sedona.

"She knows how it is here," Ricardo Rodriguez said with ominous overtones that suggested my mother was worried about much more than her passport picture.

Rodriguez is a 51-year-old naturalized American of Mexican descent. He and his wife, Antonia, have known my mother since the 1980s, when they were active members of Sedona's Catholic church. They all became compadres when my mother agreed to be godmother to the Rodriguezes' daughter.

It was a time when only a few people questioned whether Mexican immigrants should be allowed into the northern Arizona family. Sedona's tourist economy was booming and there were jobs aplenty.

Now the climate there has grown very ugly for people of Mexican descent, Rodriguez told me.

He's grown used to being stopped by police who demand various documents. Often the stops seem arbitrary. Sometimes a patrol car will tailgate his vehicle on the highways around Cottonwood.

His U.S. citizenship is a kind of shield against official harassment. But his friends and relatives who are legal permanent residents live in fear of the authorities. "If you're driving in a car with someone who doesn't have papers and they stop you, you could be arrested for smuggling," Rodriguez said. Such an arrest could lead to loss of legal status.

There's no magic way to tell legal from illegal immigrants just by looking. Illegal immigrants have even managed to fake their way into jobs as police officers, and a growing number speak English better than Spanish. In today's Arizona, a lot of people learn the status of a friend or acquaintance only when something goes wrong.

The other day Rodriguez got a call from a friend in Phoenix. "He told me, 'I can't go to work because they're all over the streets. I'm here at home hiding like a bear. If they catch me, they'll separate me from my kids.' "

Given the sense of dread hanging over Latino Arizona, Rodriguez wasn't surprised my mother would want to cancel her trip.

"We're used to people saying they're afraid to visit us," he said.

But he hoped she would travel to Arizona anyway. It's important not to surrender to fear, he said.

So on Sunday I called my mother and told her she should follow the good advice of the Dyers and the Rodriguezes and travel to Arizona. My Mother's Day gift: plane and train tickets to L.A. and Flagstaff.

Next month she'll spend a week getting caught up with Herb and Marilyn and Ricardo and Antonia.

My mother is the most deeply intuitive person I know. So when she gets back I'll ask her "Did you feel any fear in Arizona?" I know she'll give me an honest answer.

hector.tobar@latimes.com

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