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In Phoenix, a Red-Flag Issue

Phoenix area students protest at the state capitol on March 28.
Phoenix area students protest at the state capitol on March 28. (By Khampha Bouaphanh -- Associated Press)

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, April 7, 2006

PHOENIX -- This confident, laid-back city is on the verge of a nervous breakdown. Immigration reform is more than a political issue here -- it's an acute psychosis.

People were shocked two weeks ago when a mostly Latino crowd, now estimated at more than 25,000, blocked traffic in a posh part of town to protest the draconian, purely punitive immigration measures passed by the House of Representatives. Those 25,000 protesters arguably had more impact than the 500,000 who marched in Los Angeles, because Phoenix feels the impact of illegal immigration from Mexico like no other major city.

"We're the tip of the arrowhead," said Alfredo Gutierrez, a former state legislator who now hosts a Spanish-language radio talk show and helped lead the demonstration. Gutierrez and others predict that a second march planned for Monday will draw up to 100,000 people. This time organizers are asking protesters not to wave Mexican flags, because that gesture drives the anti-immigration crowd so berserk. Numbers alone will suffice to make the point.

Here, it's all about the numbers. The city's population of 1.5 million is believed to include as many as 250,000 undocumented migrants, the vast majority of them from Mexico. Every morning, scores of newly arrived pilgrims line up at the Mexican Consulate on Camelback Road to obtain a Matricula Consular -- an identification card that the consulate issues whether the person crossed the border legally or not. Bank of America regularly sets up a table in a corner of the consulate's waiting room to enroll new account holders on the spot and welcome them to the American dream.

Rusty Childress, who owns a Buick-Kia car dealership across the street from the consulate, sees that long line every day, and it drives him to distraction. Childress has emerged as one of the leaders of the anti-immigrant movement, which includes the self-appointed Minutemen who patrol the border and even a group called Mothers Against Illegal Aliens. "Mexico is trying to reconquer this country without firing a shot," Childress says, and he is speaking without irony.

"We're just pressing the issue to enforce the laws that are already on the books," Childress says. People aren't supposed to cross the border without proper documents. Employers aren't supposed to hire them. The government is supposed to deport them, not provide them services. It's that simple.

But of course it isn't simple at all.

Mexican immigration, legal or not, didn't start yesterday. Gutierrez, 60, is the son of Mexican immigrants; he grew up in a small Arizona town that practiced a "perhaps more benign" form of the apartheid that African Americans had to suffer in the South. Mexicans were allowed to use the municipal swimming pool only on Sundays, after which the pool was drained and refilled every Monday, he says. Whites went to one school, while Mexicans, Apaches and the one African American in town went to another.

The idea back then was forced assimilation. "The teacher would put a piece of tape on your mouth if you spoke Spanish instead of English," he recalls. "It was a point of honor among all the boys that by lunchtime we would all have our mouths taped up."

Within his own extended family, Gutierrez says, he counts immigrants who are American citizens, others who are permanent residents with green cards and still others who are here illegally. That is why there are no simple solutions: If you draw a sharp line between those who have proper documents and those who don't, you break up families.

Wednesday morning, leading English-language and Spanish-language radio stations joined to simulcast a two-hour call-in show that amounted to municipal group therapy. One woman who called explained that she is a legal immigrant and her U.S.-born children are citizens but that her husband has been here illegally for 10 years. To apply for legal status he would have to go back to Mexico, and it would be years before he could return -- if he ever made it back. He is the breadwinner, the woman said. Who would support the family?

"I think the flash point was the fear on the part of the immigrant community that they now would be criminalized and rounded up in buses and split from their families," Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon told me. "People at all points along the spectrum of this debate are frustrated. People want action, and we as a nation have ignored this for too long. . . . I think the protests are going to grow."

Gordon has tried from the beginning to find a middle ground, and for his trouble he has been slammed by all sides. It's a nuanced issue, he notes, and at the moment, "nuances aren't allowed."

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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