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

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.

She is 27, with long black hair, and a lanky posture that is starting to bend. She blames politicians for the dilemma before her, but she also blames herself.

"I came here illegally," says Viridiana, who asked that her and her husband's last name not be used for this reason. "I crossed without permission. I committed a crime. That's one thing attached to me. I can't get rid of it."

It is the fifth day of the month. She has 26 days to decide.

A sweeping change

Of all the cities affected by illegal immigration, Phoenix and surrounding Maricopa County stand apart as a place transformed.

In the past two decades, the Hispanic population doubled, eventually comprising a third of the county's population of 4 million people, many of whom helped build the booming suburbs sprawling into the desert. About 500,000 residents are estimated to be illegal immigrants, mostly Mexicans who moved in with relatives or rented apartments in boxy, pale-colored complexes like Viridiana's that line the city's broad avenues.

Then the recession hit and Maricopa began topping lists of counties with the most foreclosures, and Arizona began topping lists of states with the biggest budget gaps. And then came the immigration law, which would require police to check the status of people they stop and suspect of being in the U.S. illegally. While lawyers will continue to debate the measure in court, it already has had a practical, even psychological effect.

Among its supporters, there is a sense of moral certitude, a mood championed by the county's sheriff, Joe Arpaio, who has become a national hero to some by vowing to continue his sweeps for illegal immigrants - spectacular events in which deputies fan out into mostly Hispanic neighborhoods, at times wearing ski-type masks. Recently, Arpaio called for a citizen "enforcement posse," a force of 500 people who will be outfitted, he said, with their own guns and helicopters.

This is why, among Hispanic families, the mood is one of nervousness verging at times on paranoia. And why adjustments are being made to hundreds of thousands of complicated lives.

It is difficult to know exactly how many people have left, but anecdotal evidence is plentiful. Enrollment at predominantly Hispanic schools has dropped; restaurants and groceries that served the city's Hispanic enclaves are closing. People are holding yard sales every weekend - fundraisers, they say, intended to precede their departures. Perhaps the most obvious signs are all the apartment buildings draped with banners - "Three Months Free!" and "Move-In Special!" - like so many flags across the city, heralding the change.

Hopes and fears

It is in this altered world that Viridiana is making her own tentative preparations as the 8 a.m. sun seeps through the blinds. Two days after the living room conversation, she is wiping down toys, furniture, things she and John have decided to sell to pay for their own possible move at the end of the month, a self-imposed deadline for escaping this tiny, white-walled apartment.

"It's all got to go," declares John, who has a bad back, and is moving slowly this morning. "That little table under the TV," he says. "The TV. This here . . ."

There is a knock on the door, a sound that makes Viridiana nervous. She looks through the blinds. It is just the apartment complex's maintenance man.

John steps outside to smoke, and Viridiana joins him for a moment, sitting on a wooden chair.

"Do you know if there's immigration when you're trying to leave the state?" she asks, meaning that she wonders whether U.S. Border Patrol officers might be present at the state line.

"I'm not sure," John says. "See, that's something else we have to worry about."

Other things Viridiana worries about: whether her white neighbors support the new law, and if so, whether they carry guns; whether, if she returned to Mexico, her son would survive without decent medical care. In fleeting phone conversations with her mother, she has learned that their home town is now run by a drug cartel, and that her pretty younger sister has been essentially kidnapped by them, which she tries not to think about.

"My aunt says Washington is beautiful in the summer," she says, and goes inside.

She sits on the couch with her son, who has hearing aids, a breathing tube and a feeding tube she meticulously cleans. He smiles at her, but does not talk or walk, and spends most of his time lying on his back on a worn spot of tan velour. He is a U.S. citizen, as is her daughter, and John worries how they all would fare were Viridiana deported.

He met her on a city bus. At that point, she had been living in the United States for four years, working as a maid. Then she had her son, left his father, and felt her possibilities narrowing. She had to stop working to care for him. She became depressed.

"One day, I was so tired, you know?" she recalled. "I said, 'God, please, just fix my life or destroy my life.' Two days later, that was my lucky day. I got on the bus. The driver let me on for free. Five minutes later, John got on."

As John tells it, Viridiana was beautiful. And though she did not know it then, he was also seeking a kind of renewal, having recently cleaned up a heroin habit that had led to a robbery conviction, several months in jail, and lingering legal issues.

As Viridiana tells it, John spoke Spanish, had a good job, and seemed kind, asking her three times if she needed help getting off the bus with her son's machines. So she married him, which allowed her to stay home with her son, and which now ties her fate to this problematic, if well-meaning American eating scrambled eggs in front of the TV.

Making plans

On the 11th day of the month, a neighbor tells Viridiana that she had friends who tried to drive to Washington and got stopped by police. And now Viridiana is saying to John, "Maybe we should just stay, you know?"

And then it is Saturday morning, and the yard sale. She has not left the apartment in days, and the place is cramped with things in piles.

"My brother says my aunt is a liar, she just wants to get us there," Viridiana says, rummaging through John's desk. "I don't know what you want to sell from here!" she yells to him.

"The neighbor said her husband got arrested," she says in a tone of exasperation. "They'll probably deport him. Now she sells tamales and sodas by the road."

"So," she continues, "she asked me how I'm doing. I said I want to move to Washington. And she said that when she went to Nevada, immigration was there. All the time. But my uncle" - the one with the 18-wheeler - "he said he sees nothing."

She is thinking about the back of the truck, how hot it would be, how dark, how she would sit, how she would breathe.

"Come here, mi amor," she says to her little girl. She fixes her hair, puts on her sneakers.

"Anyway," Viridiana says. "Who knows what will happen today. Who knows what God will give us today."

She and her daughter walk into the hot and windy morning, to the curb at the edge of the complex, where John has displayed their belongings along a low gray wall facing a road: some little, frilly angels he claims are made of crushed diamonds, a black velvet bag with colored stones, toy guitars, stuffed animals, clothes, books, dishes.

John goes inside, leaving Viridiana, who worries about being there alone. She sits on a chair under a scrawny palm. A car passes. Then nothing.

"I believe I have to be strong for my family, you know?" Viridiana says after a while. "I think good things are coming. That is my hope."

A hard gust of wind blows some toys off the wall.

"Us Christian people, we believe God has you struggle," she offers next. "You don't know what else to do, and God leads you to the final point to see how strong you are."

The day goes on, strangers bargain for their belongings, and by afternoon, they've made $88.

As they pack up, a police car pulls into the parking lot. The officer, who is white, rolls down the window. Viridiana keeps her head down, packing. She is thinking, she says later, that they don't have a permit for the yard sale, the sort of infraction that can lead to immigration questions. She is thinking this is it.

"Did you see someone running around with a baseball bat?" the officer asks.

She keeps packing. John is there.

"No," he says. "We haven't seen anything."

Another journey

The second to last Saturday of the month, they try again: angels along the wall, Viridiana in the chair under the palm. She adjusts some books and a photo falls out.

And there is the person she was: 17, standing straight, hair curled, wearing a red blouse and red lipstick on a hopeful smile in Aguililla, her tiny, poor home town in southwestern Mexico, another place she had wanted to escape.

A relative had helped raise the $2,000 she needed to cross, and one afternoon an uncle drove her to the border to meet her guide. The first time she tried to walk through the checkpoint, she got arrested. The second time, the bribe worked, and she met a car that delivered her to Phoenix, where, eight years later, she is wearing gray sweat pants and a gray T-shirt, her hair in a ponytail. She sips ice water from a plastic tumbler.

A Mercedes stops, and an older white man and his son get out.

"Drinking already?" the man says to her.

"It's just water, sir," she says.

The son, seeming embarrassed, slips her $20, and as the day goes on, she manages to make $55. Back in the apartment, Viridiana revisits her options.

They've raised nowhere near the $2,000 they need. John has not found work. They discuss staying. Maybe they could move to a smaller apartment, save money, wait.

An uneasy time

It is late in the month, early evening, and John is asleep. Viridiana cooks dinner, watches the news, then walks to the window and looks through the blinds.

It had been raining all day, but now it has stopped and she is restless. And so, she decides to take a walk, a small act of freedom she has not allowed herself the entire month. She takes her daughter's hand and opens the door.

Outside, the sun has dropped below a huge swell of clouds, and the sky is lit with purple and pink and orange. It is almost cool.

They walk into the late summer evening, past the low gray wall at the edge of the complex and a half block to the street corner, where they wait as white headlights glide past. Viridiana pulls her daughter close. Then they cross, and walk along the straight edge of a green park.

"It's nice out here," Viridiana says.

There are some flashes of lightning.

"See the sky?" she says to her daughter, and lets her run ahead a bit.

She looks across the park, which is pristine and almost empty.

They walk a minute or so further. The sidewalk is long, and stretches as far as she can see.

There is still light left, but something tells her to turn around. She is becoming uncomfortable.

"Let's go," she calls sharply to her daughter. They hurry back to the apartment, and shut the door.

Inside, Viridiana considers her choices: stay or go, truck or van, an aunt she doesn't really know or a husband she cannot really rely upon, an uncertain future in someplace called Washington or an uncertain future in Phoenix. Or maybe something else, some luck she cannot yet imagine. She is losing weight, she notices. She doesn't eat when she is worried, and in a city full of worries, hers is this:

Once, she was the dependent one in this Mexican-American marriage. She needed this country, and she needed John, she had thought. Now, she realizes, her sick son, her 2-year-old daughter and her unemployed husband are depending on her - three U.S. citizens counting on the one who is not.

She sits on the couch with her son. The end of the month is here. It is time to decide.

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