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Correction to This Article
This article about how Arizona's new immigration law has affected the town of Benson misstated the number of federal lawsuits challenging the law. There are seven such suits, not three.

This article incorrectly described a car involved in a police stop as a Dodge Falcon. There is no such model; the Falcon was made by Ford. Police said the car pulled over was a Dodge, but they could not confirm which model.

As implementation of Arizona immigration law looms, 'pressure from all sides'

As the controversial law kicks in, residents and law enforcement officials struggle to make sense of the situation in the town of Benson, Ariz.

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By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010

BENSON, ARIZ. -- Paul Moncada, the silver-haired police chief of this highway town, spent a recent morning anxiously checking the TV for news about Arizona's controversial new immigration law, set to take effect in a matter of days.

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He sifted through stacks of state training materials, which still left him with lots of questions. And he worried about the frustrated people in town who might sue him for not enforcing the new law well enough, the frustrated people in town who might accuse him of racial profiling and the thousands who cross the blazing desert around here and whose lives he is also duty-bound to protect.

"There's pressure from all sides, and I understand all the sides," said Moncada, 56, who grew up here and has served on the force 34 years. "I'm just telling my officers: Do your job. It's nerve-racking."

A federal judge has scheduled a hearing Thursday on an Obama administration lawsuit, one of three challenging the Arizona law, which requires officers to check the immigration status of people they arrest or cite for any violation if they have "reasonable suspicion" the person is in the United States illegally. The law has renewed the contentious national debate over immigration reform, sparked huge protests in Tucson and Phoenix and spawned the possibility of similar laws in other states.

Its effects have been somewhat quieter, if no less divisive, in Benson, a town of about 5,000 people, a third of Hispanic descent, about an hour's drive from the Mexican border. It is a tourist stopover and mostly working-class community of flat-roofed adobe homes, pebbly RV parks and more upscale enclaves such as San Pedro Ranches on the edges of town. And as elsewhere, the debate here has mingled with an already trying situation. The troubled economy forced the state to clip Benson's budget, and unemployment, foreclosures and minor crime linked mostly to drug addicts has cast some gloom upon the city motto, "Hang out in Benson!"

Some residents have come to associate a general sense of decline with illegal immigration, which is visible here in the desert litter of backpacks and water jugs, and in the crammed-full vans that drivers sometimes ditch along the highways, sending passengers fleeing. In that context, the new law has inspired feelings from profound unease to a kind of righteous victory, which often sort along ethnic lines.

A sense of fear

"Amen" is what Danna Judd said when Republican Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law in April.

She and her husband, Bevin, a UPS salesman, moved from Tucson to a new house on 22 acres in San Pedro Ranches three years ago, but their rural-lifestyle fantasy was quickly spoiled. They found stashes of clothes when they were out for desert walks. They found a smuggler's van abandoned in their gravel driveway. More recently, they arrived home with their two kids from an evening baseball game to a scene of floodlights and U.S. Border Patrol agents scrambling across their property.

"My neighbor called and said they were chasing around 20 people," Bevin Judd said. They ushered the kids to bed, turned on all the lights and locked the doors.

Like many who grew up in Benson, Bevin Judd remembers giving bread and water to Mexican farmworkers who crossed through town when he was a kid. He remembers leaving doors unlocked, keys in the car. "But now it almost seems like there's a criminal element to it," he said. The sense that crime has increased with illegal immigration isn't supported by either local or statewide crime statistics, although that is difficult for some around here to believe.

"It makes you afraid," said Danna Judd, a deputy city clerk. "You don't know who is out there. Are they drug smugglers? Do they have guns?"

To the Judds' relief, the one person who definitely does have guns is their neighbor Bob Dekoschak, 62, who was cleaning out his horse barn in the late afternoon. The wind blew the chimes. His wife, Elise, arrived home from work, and they sat under ceiling fans in their library packed with James Michener novels and books on Latin American culture.

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