By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 22, 2010; A01
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.
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.
"When we were moving here, we talked to a friend who said, 'Oh, and how armed are you?' " explained Elise Dekoschak, 60, who works for the state government.
Bob Dekoschak, who works for an international software manufacturer, already had a 12-gauge shotgun, but he bought two more, along with a .357 magnum.
As the sun sank into the crumbled landscape, the Dekoschaks talked of feeling isolated from law enforcement, which is spread so thin. They talked about the things they blame, at least partly, on illegal immigration: the state's failing schools, the closed hospitals, strained local budgets. They question its comparative benefits of cheap lettuce and cheap houses that helped drive Arizona's boom years.
"When Brewer brought this forth, she did it for those of us on the front lines," Bob Dekoschak said. "Those of us armed. Those of us with illegals running through our yards. We can't keep placating the Hispanic community. What we need is a division of Marines . . . "
He paused. Elise held up her hand. "Wait," she said. "What's that?"
A chopping noise; a helicopter, they decided. Maybe Border Patrol.No practical effect?
In the police station, Moncada was listening to radio calls. An officer was investigating a burglary suspect; another was checking out a crystal-methamphetamine lab; a highway patrol officer had stopped two men in a car and needed a Spanish speaker.
"I guess that's me," said Moncada, one of two Hispanic Americans on the force of 16 officers. He walked out into the 105-degree noon and sped off in his gray Chevy.
"I don't know what it is," he said, gliding onto Interstate 10. "But if you work in the southern part of Arizona, you should speak Spanish."
At the scene, the patrol officer explained that he'd pulled over the burgundy Dodge Falcon for speeding and following another car too closely. The driver had produced a Mexican license and a proper visa. The passenger produced his legal resident card. But the car was not registered to them. And after Moncada asked a few questions, the two men's stories did not match.
Moncada watched the two men as the patrol officer searched the trunk, the door frames, the engine, shining his flashlight into its crevices. Nothing. They let the men go.
"I think he was running heat," the chief said of the driver, referring to a common smuggling tactic around here, in which one car distracts the police so others get through. He got back into his Chevy.
"With the new law," he said, rehearsing a future scenario, "nothing would have changed on that stop."
And for Moncada, at least, that is the irony of the new law: Although heightening fears and expectations, threatening lawsuits and creating confusion, it is unlikely to change much about how his officers do their jobs, he said.
Already, if they stop a speeding van and people bail out running, officers generally make the leap and call Border Patrol. The new law essentially requires that call, along with one to verify the immigration status of every local drug addict, drunk driver or shoplifter arrested after next Thursday, when the law takes effect, barring an injunction. Although the law might play out differently in other places, Moncada said, his police will not use it as an excuse to hunt illegal immigrants. As a practical matter, he and other chiefs said, they are simply too busy with regular crime.
"I really don't know if it will have any significant effect at all," the chief said. "Will it fill the jails? Probably not. Will it be a deterrent? Probably not."
He drove down Route 80, past a blur of beige desert, past the iron gate where some ranchers found a body a few weeks ago.
"The poor guy was just laid out there," Moncada said, pointing to the spot. "We didn't find any water jugs. No backpack. It was miserably hot that day, 109 degrees. You can only imagine what kind of death . . . "'What's next?'
When the new law was introduced, Melissa Herrera-DiPeso, who runs a real estate agency in town, interpreted it as a license for the police to racially profile Hispanic Americans. This was based upon her memories of growing up in Tucson, when some white parents didn't let their daughters play with her. In high school, she had a white friend who was not allowed to have a Mexican boyfriend. Now a successful, glamorous-looking woman with a son attending Stanford University, she has been forced to wonder again how others see her.
"My white friends say, 'Oh, Melissa, you're making such a big deal of it,' " she said, sitting in her office. "But they're white. They don't have to deal with it."
She, too, is afraid of drug-related violence spilling over from Mexico. And like everyone, she is hopeful that the controversy will push the federal government to deal with immigration reform, although realistically, she figures it won't. And so she worries, about news that a list of illegal immigrants was circulating in Utah, about a mood of vigilantism that she believes Arizona's new law has encouraged.
"There's so much anger and frustration," she said. "If this law doesn't work, what's next?"Wary of the effects
Down a gravel driveway, behind a locked gate, a man who preferred that only his first name, Marco, be used, considered that question.
He arrived in Tucson seven years ago on a tourist visa, found work framing the new houses. He got a paycheck then and paid taxes. He brought his wife and two kids to join him, and they moved to Benson, where he works for a rancher.
"We're not just here to benefit," said Marco, 37. "We're also giving."
He rents a trailer where he sat down on an overstuffed couch in a room decorated with frilly maroon curtains, his son's baseball trophies, family photos, two paintings of Jesus and one of the Virgin of Guadalupe.
He is nervous about the new law, he said, and like everyone else, he is preparing.
He has gathered all the documents he can find in a desperate hope that they might satisfy police asking for papers: some invoices from a store he owns in Mexico; a letter of recommendation from his home town's mayor. He plans to fix the small crack in the windshield of the sedan he drives to work, an infraction that could lead to his deportation if the law takes effect. He will try to look friendly but unassuming.
"I always try to dress clean, not dirty, like I've been walking through the desert," Marco said. Still, he worries about what might happen.
"Maybe it was a mistake to bring my family here," he said. "If it gets too tough, I will go. Maybe California."