x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

Aliens live in fear of being taken away

Life was good in economically robust Arizona until the state's legislators and police got tough.

PHOENIX // Ever since Arizona launched a crackdown on illegal immigrants, Guadalupe Quibuis has been afraid to leave her house. She and her husband, both from Mexico, have lived in Arizona for a decade. For many years, life in the United States was good to them. Mrs Quibuis shampooed dogs at a pet-grooming salon, while a construction boom in Phoenix brought steady work to her husband. They rented a home with a garden and had three children who attend public school. Arizona's robust economy - one of the fastest growing in the country - attracted waves of undocumented migrants like the Quibuis family. The border state became one of the country's busiest gateways for illegal immigrants, who make up as much as 12 per cent of Arizona's workforce - about double the national average. Growing pains, including rising crime, eventually led to a fierce backlash. Last year after the US Congress jettisoned a federal immigration overhaul that would have given amnesty to some of the country's estimated 12 million illegal residents, Arizona state legislators passed a bill to penalise the firms who hire undocumented workers. Known as the Stop Illegal Hiring Act, it is one of the most punishing anti-immigrant laws in the United States. Companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers can have their business licences suspended for 10 days, or revoked on the second offence. Overnight, tens of thousands of Arizona workers, including Mr and Mrs Quibuis, lost their jobs. Then, to make matters more difficult for illegal immigrants, a controversial and powerful police official took the law as a green light to round up illegal immigrants. Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, ordered his deputies to check the papers of everyone they pulled over on traffic violations. He also gave officers free reign to stop people they passed in the street. Critics accuse the police of racial profiling, a charge Mr Arpaio has rejected. "I'm an equal opportunity guy," he said in April. "I lock up everybody." His supporters said illegal immigrants pay no taxes but put a strain on such social services as hospitals and schools. Business leaders, who first tried to have the law declared unconstitutional, and later put forward a proposition to modify it, say it has raised the cost of doing business in Arizona, and that means higher prices for consumers. "Meanwhile, unlicensed businesses that attract undocumented workers by paying them under the table in cash have continued to operate with impunity," wrote Marion Magruder, a restaurant franchise owner in a commentary in the Arizona Republic. The new law presents a stark dilemma for the Quibuis family and thousands like them: they worry they will get separated from their children, who are US citizens because they were born in Arizona. "At any moment they could just take us away," said Mrs Quibuis in an interview. "I am frightened even to walk down the street." Judy Gans, an immigration analyst at the University of Arizona, said people such as Mrs Quibuis have good reason to be concerned. "There are documented cases of raids resulting in parents being deported and families split up." Last week's election brought two victories for the anti-immigrant movement: Maricopa County re-elected Mr Arpaio for his sixth term as sheriff, and voters across the state soundly defeated a proposition to overturn the Stop Illegal Hiring Act. Arizona, a place where armed vigilante groups patrol the border, has long been a state in turmoil over thorny immigration issues. Analysts said the backlash against migrants here is being reflected in other parts of the country, too. On Nov 4, Missouri voters overwhelmingly passed a law decreeing English as the state's official language. And in Florida, residents rejected a proposition that many (incorrectly) interpreted would have allowed illegal migrants to own property. Barack Obama, the president-elect, has supported immigration reform in the past, but he rarely mentioned the issue in a campaign focused on the economic downturn and the war in Iraq. "All the candidates claim they want immigration reform," said Maria, another illegal immigrant in Phoenix, "but it's just hot air: blah, blah, blah, blah." After the 2007 reform bill failed, many fear Mr Obama will be wary of trying to make another attempt. "We have all seen how difficult this issue is politically and Obama has a lot on his plate," Ms Gans said. "It is unfortunate that the rhetoric blames immigrants instead of stepping up to the political challenge of fixing our immigration system." Supporters of immigration reform said it was misleading to suggest that migrant workers were simply a drain on the economy, saying their low wages keep costs low and help drive the economy. "Arizona would not be the same without the strong influx of immigrants we have had," said Matt Morales, a city councilman. Also, analysts said there was evidence the new law in Arizona had made illegal immigrants like the Quibuis family even more dependent on social services. These days, Mrs Quibuis and her husband pick up day jobs where they can, hoping they will not be picked up by police. They also rely on monthly handouts from a Phoenix food bank, and share their home with another Mexican family, who lost their house in the foreclosure crisis. "We try and cut costs, but every month it's hard to make ends meet," Mrs Quibuis said. "When the kids open the fridge and there's nothing in it, that is really hard for me." Despite their current problems, she said the family had no plans to move back to Mexico. gpeters@thenational.ae