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Immigrant families leave Arizona and tough new law

PHOENIX — "Cuanto?" asks a young man pointing to four bottles of car polish at a recent garage sale in an east Phoenix neighborhood.

The question, Spanish for "How much?" sends Minerva Ruiz and Claudia Suriano scrambling and calling out to their friend, Silvia Arias, who's selling the polish. "Silvia!"

Arias is out of earshot, so Suriano improvises.

"Cinco dolares," she says. "Five dollars." And another sale is made.

As the women await their next customer in the rising heat of an Arizona morning, they talk quietly about food and clothes, about their children and husbands. They are best friends, all mothers who are viewed as pillars of parental support at the neighborhood elementary school.


All three are illegal immigrants from Mexico.

They're holding the garage sale to raise money to leave Arizona, and to escape the state's tough new law that cracks down on people just like them.

Ruiz and Suriano and their families plan to move this month. Arias and her family are considering leaving, but are waiting to see if the law will go into effect as scheduled July 29, and, if so, how it will be enforced.

The law requires police investigating another incident or crime to ask people about their immigration status if there's a "reasonable suspicion" they're in the country illegally. It also makes being in Arizona illegally a misdemeanor, and it prohibits seeking day-labor work along the state's streets.

The law's stated intention is unambiguous: It seeks to drive illegal immigrants out of Arizona and to discourage them from coming here.

There is no official data tracking how many are leaving because of the law, but anecdotal evidence provided by schools, businesses, churches and healthcare facilities suggests that sizable numbers are departing.

Ruiz, Suriano and Arias are representative of many families facing what they consider a cruel dilemma. To leave, they must pull their children from school, uproot their lives and look for new jobs and homes elsewhere. But to stay is to be under the scrutiny of the nation's most stringent immigration laws and the potentially greater threat of being caught, arrested and deported. They also perceive a growing hostility toward Hispanics, in general.

On the quarter-mile stretch of Phoenix's Belleview Street where both Ruiz and Suriano live, more than half the apartments and single-family homes have "for rent" signs out front. The women say most of them went up after the new law was signed in late April.


"Everyone's afraid," Arias says.

The three friends are key members of a parents' support group at their children's school down the street, said Rosemarie Garcia, parent liaison for the Balsz Elementary School District.

"They are the paper and glue and the scissors of the whole thing," Garcia said. "I can run to them for anything."

With two of the women leaving and the other thinking about it, Garcia is concerned about the school's future.

"It'll be like a desert here," she said. "It's a gap we'll have all over the neighborhood, the community, our school."

Ruiz, Suriano and Arias met three years ago at cafecitos, or coffee talks, held at the school. Now their families hold barbecues together and their children have sleepovers.

Arias, 49, and her day laborer husband paid a coyote to come to Arizona 15 years ago from Tepic, Nayarit on Mexico's central-western coast. Their children, ages 9, 11 and 13, are U.S. citizens.

"I don't want to leave but we don't know what's going to happen," she says.


Ruiz, 38, and her husband, who builds furniture, came to the U.S. from Los Mochis in the northwestern Mexican state of Sinaloa about six years ago on tourist visas, which expired long ago. Two of their kids, ages 9 and 13, are here illegally, while their 1-year-old was born here. The family is moving to Clovis, N.M., where they have family. "It's calmer there," Ruiz says.

Suriano, 28, and her husband crossed the desert six years ago with their then-toddler. The boy is now 9, and the couple has a 4-year-old who was born here. They're moving to Albuquerque, where they don't know anyone but already have lined up an apartment and a carpentry job for him.

"I don't want to go," Suriano says, wiping away tears. "We're leaving everything behind. But I'm scared the police will catch me and send me back to Mexico."

Some people in the neighborhood are not sympathetic.

"Bye-bye, see you later," says 28-year-old Sarah Williams, who lives two blocks south of Ruiz and Suriano with her 5- and 7-year-old children and her aunt. "They're taking opportunities from Americans and legal citizens."

However, Williams, says she doesn't support Arizona's new law because she believes it will lead to racial profiling.

The law still faces several pending legal challenges. The U.S. Justice Department also is reviewing the statute for possible civil rights violations, with an eye toward a possible court challenge.

The law's backers say Congress isn't doing anything meaningful about illegal immigration, and so it's the state's duty to step up. They deplore the social costs and violence they say are associated with illegal immigration.


The law's critics say it will lead to racial profiling and discrimination against Hispanics, and damage ties between police and minority communities.

As the debate plays out, dozens of healthcare clinics in central and southern Arizona say many of their Hispanic clients aren't showing up for scheduled appointments. They say they're either afraid to leave the house or they're moving away, said Tara McCollum Plese, a spokeswoman for the Arizona Association of Community Health Centers, which oversees 132 facilities.

"Some are actually calling the clinics and asking if it's safe to come, if they need papers," since the new law passed, she said.

Sick people avoiding treatment can become a public health problem, she said. "We're actually worried about communicable diseases."

If enough people stop going to the clinics, she said, some services could be cut, and some clinics, especially in rural areas, could be forced to close.

Schools may face laying off teachers and cutting programs because of fewer students, educators say.

Parents pulled 39 children out of Balsz Elementary, which has a 75 percent Hispanic student body, since April 23, the day the law was signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer. In the small, five-school district, parents have pulled out 111 children, said district Superintendent Jeffrey Smith, who cites the new law as the leading factor.

Smith said each student represents roughly $5,000 in annual funding to the district, so a drop of 111 students would represent roughly a $555,000 funding cut.


Many schools across Arizona have seen a steady decline in Hispanic students in recent years, although some district superintendents say the current drop is more dramatic. Schools attribute the declining numbers to the recession and to the state's employer-sanctions law, which passed in 2007 and carries license suspensions and revocations for those who knowingly hire illegal immigrants.

Area businesses also say they're seeing the effects of people leaving the state.

Steve Salvato, manager at the family-owned World Class Car Wash, just around the corner from Belleview Street, said business is down 30 percent. Salvato said the car wash relies mostly on Hispanic customers and points to the new law for the recent decline in business.

"A lot of people have just packed up and moved," he said, adding that a strip mall across the street used to be bustling on weekends. "Now it's like a ghost town."

A nearby Food City grocery store reports a 20 percent to 30 percent drop in business.

Back at the garage sale, the three friends have a row of tables strewn with Barbie dolls, bicycle helmets, old movies and a Jane Fonda workout video. A laundry basket is overflowing with children's toys, and a shopping cart is filled with clothes.

They are selling off pieces of their lives.

Their easy banter, mostly in Spanish, quickly turns to tears when they're asked about their impending separation. Ruiz and Suriano have pleaded with Arias to follow them to New Mexico.


"They're my companions," Suriano says of the other two women. "We do everything hand-in-hand."

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