By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
A rash of labor shortages, costing potentially astronomic sums, has ripped through the state as more and more Mexican migrants — once they are safely across the Arizona border — simply move on to less hostile employment environments, in California, New Mexico or just about anywhere else in the country. Some estimate that the new law may eventually affect as much as 8 percent of the labor force of Arizona, a state where unemployment rarely hits half that number.
Likewise, in mid-May, as was first reported by our sister paper the Phoenix New Times, Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano finally got fed up with the anti-immigrant antics of the notorious rogue sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio. The self-proclaimed “meanest sheriff in the world” had deployed a whopping 160 members of his Phoenix-area force to a so-called border unit. And after some cross-training with federal immigration agents, Arpaio’s deputies were swarming through Latino neighborhoods of greater Phoenix, rousting those they could on minor infractions and questioning their immigration status.
In an executive order signed on May 12, Napolitano shifted elsewhere much of the funding used by Arpaio’s immigration unit. While she denied she had targeted Arpaio, the sheriff reacted angrily to the funding cutoff.
Arpaio’s raids had sparked a war of words, not only with local immigration advocates and with Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, but also with some local police officials who roundly and publicly criticized Arpaio’s operations. Foremost among Arpaio’s law-enforcement critics has been George Gascon, former assistant chief of the LAPD and now chief of police in Mesa, a large Phoenix suburb in Maricopa County. One of the most enlightened police officials in the U.S., Gascon — as a critic of Arpaio — has become a lightning rod for Minutemen-like xenophobic groups.
“I’m extremely concerned about the area of civil rights,” Gascon told L.A. Weekly. “As this [anti-immigrant] train moves forward, I just don’t hear enough anger, enough of an outcry that people are basically being arrested on the basis of race, a basic violation of the 14th Amendment.”
“We’re taking a whole generation of police officers,” the Cuban-born Gascon says, “and we’re culturizing them into an entire culture in conflict with the Constitution. My fears are that here in Arizona, as we engage in an era of employer sanctions and police roundups, people who need to work are going to be ushered into criminal activity. It’s just not realistic to think people coming from Latin America are going to self-deport. That’s just incredibly stupid.”
For the past handful of years, it’s been a simple, if quite bumpy, drive down a 60-mile rutted dirt road leading south from the border post of Sasabe to the Sonoran town of Altar — a central launching pad for Mexican migrants heading to the U.S. It’s in Altar that they make their connections with their coyotes, or polleros, and are fed assembly-line style into the vast smuggling pipelines that discharge in the car washes of El Monte and the poultry plants of the Carolinas.
And it’s no accident that the new piece of border fence we visited was constructed smack-dab at Sasabe, the dusty border town where that road connects to Altar. A year or two ago, before the heightened enforcement push in the Tucson sector of the border, as many as 2,000 migrants, packed into vans carrying 20 or more, poured into the U.S. from Altar each and every day and then fanned out into the deserts and cities beyond.
Now, that ride isn’t so simple. Not because of the American border fence, but because of the spreading grip of drug cartels along the Mexican borderlands. For the first time in five years, I was warned specifically not to travel that direct road to Altar but rather to take a much longer, more circuitous route into the nondescript town that some grimly call “the gateway to the American Dream.”
The narcos now firmly control the old dirt road that is the most direct route from Altar to Arizona. And it’s not just here, south of Tucson. In the first three months of this year, more than 200 people were killed in drug-related massacres in Juarez, just across from El Paso. On April 27, 17 people were shot dead in a wild drug-war shootout on a main thoroughfare in Tijuana. The mounting chaos only drives more immigrants into the U.S.
“The narcos are now charging $50 a head for the migrants going up that road,” says Enrique Zelaya, a staff member at the Catholic-run shelter for migrants in Altar. “Last year, they burned 30 vans along that road, and they kidnapped 150 migrants,” he adds. But not even this deters the migrant flow. The van drivers who make the run up the road, and were parked in a line along Altar’s colonial plaza, all confirmed that they have raised the fare to the border from $10 to $60 a head over the past year.