In Arizona, an illegal immigrant and her family face a stark choice

Arizona's controversial new immigration law has left one family in a frightened limbo, as they consider whether the mother should stay in Phoenix or try to leave without being arrested.
By Stephanie McCrummen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 10, 2010; 12:45 AM

It is a bright afternoon early in the month, a moment of anxiety at a sun-faded apartment complex in north Phoenix. Down a dusty breezeway, workers are painting white a recently vacated unit. A few doors away, the power company has posted a shut-off notice for a family that left rather suddenly, in the middle of one recent night. And across a barren courtyard, the blinds are drawn over the only window of another apartment, where a conversation is underway.

A week has passed since the state's controversial new immigration law took partial effect, since its supporters began waving signs - "Adios, illegals!" - and since the woman inside the apartment decided the city has become so dangerous for her that it is best to keep hidden inside.

"We are thinking she could go in the back of her uncle's truck - he drives an 18-wheeler," says the woman's husband, John, a U.S. citizen, suggesting how his wife, Viridiana, who is Mexican and crossed the U.S. border illegally eight years ago, might leave Arizona.

"I'm scared of that," says Viridiana, who has a disabled 5-year-old son and a 2-year-old daughter.

"We could all go in the van," John suggests. "But then I could be arrested for harboring . . . "

The discussion carries on, one of many such conversations going on across Arizona, and especially Phoenix, the hot, flat sprawl that is the latest crucible in the national debate over the country's 11 million undocumented immigrants. The reason is the law and, more broadly, a shift in mood concerning illegal immigration. Although a federal judge blocked key parts of the measure in July - a federal appeals court hearing is set for Nov. 1 - the anger and frustration that inspired it has continued. At least five other states and more cities and towns have introduced similar legislation and, in this election season, politicians are blaming illegal immigrants for everything from crime to the festering economic malaise.

Viridiana hears rumors almost every day: that public bus drivers are asking passengers for papers; that landlords are evicting tenants who can't prove they are citizens; that the sheriff is going to start sweeping for illegal immigrants at Food City, where Viridiana used to shop, or at soccer fields like the one across the street. She worries about every police car she sees, about the air of vigilantism she feels taking hold.

So, on this afternoon, she begins to consider two imperfect choices: stay hidden or join the quiet exodus now underway, with families heading to New Mexico, California and other states where they might find a relative and a place they can live without worry.

For Viridiana, this hoped-for place is a tiny town called Moses Lake, in Washington state, which she knows almost entirely from phone conversations with an aunt who has been urging her to come there since the trouble in Arizona began.

"She says Washington doesn't have these kinds of problems," Viridiana says, and for now, this is all she needs to know.

The rest are questions for a person with few decent options. The back of an 18-wheeler or the van? And what about money? The van would need new tires, repairs, three days of gas, plus hotels and food - at least $2,000, she and John figure, when their only income is a monthly $600 government check that John gets for the boy. And that is if they go.

If they stay, there is the question of John: He is 55, unemployed and, is by his own account, struggling. His own citizenship cannot confer residency for Viridiana because she came to the United States illegally. He would have to hire a lawyer to sort out her status by proving that her sick son could die without her, a $10,000 long shot that depends partly on the goodwill of a judge.

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