In the days since Arizona passed the nation’s toughest law targeting illegal immigrants, this congenial Old West outpost has shown signs of splintering, with neighbors turning against neighbors and police worried about racial profiling.
At community gatherings and City Hall meetings, in homes and morning coffee klatches, tensions rose last week as Winslow residents debated the state of ethnic relations and the burden placed on their little city by both illegal immigrants and the new law’s enforcement mandates.
The measure, which has yet to be signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, would require police, if they suspect someone is in the country illegally, to determine the person’s immigration status.
Currently, officers can ask about someone’s immigration status only if the person is a suspect in another crime. Those who can’t prove they are in the U.S. legally face misdemeanor charges.
Winslow police and city officials said they were loath to enforce the law because it would drain scarce resources and risk charges of racial profiling.
Leaders wonder how their 26-officer department can afford to investigate, arrest and transport suspected undocumented immigrants to the nearest prison, 30 miles away.
“At some point in time, it will boil down to this: If we enforce this new law, we are not going to be able to afford to take care of some other pressing law enforcement issues,” said Jim Ferguson, city administrator of the 10,500-resident community about 150 miles northeast of Phoenix. “So there’s a safety cost.”
Winslow Police Officer Afton Foster agreed, and expressed personal misgivings. “It will make us look like bad guys pursuing people because of the color of their skin.”
Some citizens, however, are emboldened by a provision in the law that allows them to sue police agencies to compel them to enforce it.
“Political correctness is a disease like typhoid and malaria,” said lifelong Winslow resident Marie Lamar, 81. “Until we are all law-abiding citizens, the system will never work.”
Lamar also said she intends to report suspected undocumented residents to police, and “complain to the City Council if the law is not enforced.”
All these are weighty topics for a town that prides itself on its Route 66 heritage, and was put on the map by the Eagles hit “Take it Easy.” Remember the lyrics? “Well, I’m a-standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, and such a fine sight to see. . . .”
“I have real mixed feelings about the whole immigration issue involved here,” said Winslow City Atty. Dale Patton Jr. “I’ve practiced law for 30 years and I’ve seen real criminals. But most of these people are not criminals. For the most part they are good, clean, hardworking people who just want to earn a living for their families.”
Amid the conflicts, illegal immigrants were taking stock of their options. The law’s intent to drive them away appears to be taking hold for some.
Leoncio, 39, a restaurant manager who asked that his full name not be used because he does not have papers, shook his head in dismay and said, “You can’t fight the law. Maybe I’ll move back to Mexico, or to another state like Colorado, Idaho or California.
“I hate being illegal,” added Leoncio, who said he had been trying to obtain legal status for nine years. “If I am arrested and deported, my wife and five children, who are citizens, will go on welfare and food stamps. Is that really what people want?”
The community is divided on that sort of question.
Under azure skies on Thursday, a group of four business leaders convened on a downtown street corner to discuss previous plans for a series of multicultural community activities this year, including an event called “Winslow Summer Nights,” featuring live music.
“Winslow is a very multicultural community,” said Lawrence Kenna, who owns several downtown commercial buildings. “Everybody just seems to get along.”
But when the subject turned to the new immigration law, lines were drawn.
“This law seems very harsh,” one woman said. “I have a relative from Mexico who is a U.S. citizen. I don’t know how I would feel if she were stopped by police.”
But gift shop owner Sandra Myers had her mind made up. “Yes, it’s going to be hard if maybe your next-door neighbor has to return to Mexico,” she said. “But things are out of control. Enough is enough.”
Melissa Wallace, a labor representative at a local Arizona Department of Corrections facility, said: “It would be heart-wrenching to think that my grandchildren would have to justify their citizenship.”
Tax processor Kathy Contreras overheard the comments and interjected, “I’ll do what’s best for Winslow. If it’s state law, we need to follow it.”
Former mayor Allan Affeldt, who owns the elegant La Posada Hotel near where the Los Angeles-to-Chicago Amtrak line stops twice daily, believes the tensions will be short-lived.
“I don’t think there will be an ugly fight here, because we simply can’t afford to enforce this law,” he said.
“I predict the City Council will declare, ‘Of course, we will implement the law -- when we have the resources to do so.’ . . . Give city officials the rational choice between chasing undocumented people or property crimes, and they will choose the latter.”
The new law comes as Winslow, with an annual budget of about $12 million, is trying to revive its tourism business by cleaning up neighborhood streets, demolishing abandoned structures and redeveloping its deteriorating downtown with vintage 1950s facades and multicultural events.
But in the dilapidated barrio locals know as Southside, Ronaldo Gonzales wondered whether the law would somehow make it harder than ever to find work to support his fiancee and her seven children.
“This law is racist and wrong, man, because police are going mix up Mexican nationals with Mexicans from the United States like me -- I was born in Idaho,” he said.
“My dad gave me some advice. He said, ‘You will be walking down the street one day and police will mistake you for being illegal. Just stay calm and let them know who you are.’ ”
Winslow City Councilman Tom Chacon, who was born and raised in Southside, would not argue with any of that. “It’s scaring the hell out of people,” he said. “It’s a step backward. I remember when Mexican and African American children were only allowed to swim in the municipal pool on Fridays. On Saturday, the city drained the pool then refilled it for the white kids.”
The immigration law has put Winslow Police Chief Stephen Garnett, pastor of Winslow’s St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church, in a difficult position. Some locals are demanding aggressive enforcement of the law. Others worry the law would lead to racial profiling that would sweep up innocent U.S. citizens.
Garnett declined to comment on how he plans to proceed until he has had a chance to discuss the matter with his command staff and the Navajo County attorney.
But on Saturday, as he applied a new coat of white paint to the brick walls of his 58-year-old church, he spoke with pride of his force and its role in the community.
“My command staff includes a Native American, an African American and an Anglo, and my lead investigator is Hispanic -- you can’t get more diverse, or better than that,” he said.
“In Winslow, we do not tolerate racial profiling of any kind.”