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Arizona immigration law tints neighborhood dispute

Had Arizona’s governor not just signed the toughest law against illegal immigrants in the nation, the killing of Juan Varela probably would have been written off as just a tragic neighborhood dispute.

The 44-year-old U.S. citizen was watering chile plants in his front yard when a neighbor confronted him and shot him to death, according to police documents.

Varela’s brother, Antonio, told police that the neighbor, Gary Kelley, who is white, called Juan Varela by an ethnic slur and said he had to “go back to Mexico” now that Gov. Jan Brewer had signed SB 1070. The family campaigned to publicize the death, culminating with the county prosecutor’s decision last month to add a hate-crime allegation to the second-degree murder charges filed against Kelley.

But Kelley’s Latino tenant and neighbors say he displayed no racial animus and had criticized the new law as unfair. Most immigrant rights activists have shied away from the case, skeptical that the killing was racially motivated.

To some Arizonans, it’s an illustration of how incidents in the state now get interpreted through the prism of the new law.

“When this happened, everyone immediately wanted to make this about 1070,” said an exasperated Tommy Thompson, a Phoenix police spokesman who downplayed any racial overtones to Varela’s killing.

Tensions are rising here as the clock ticks down to Thursday, the day the law is scheduled to take effect.

Some activists sometimes compare Arizona to the Jim Crow-era South or Nazi Germany, and other groups privately worry about civil unrest. Meanwhile, Brewer has contended that most illegal immigrants entering her state are drug smugglers. (Civil rights groups and the Obama administration have asked a federal judge to halt SB 1070.)

Police departments are still trying to figure out what the complex measure requires their officers to do. The key provisions mandate that police check the immigration status of people they lawfully stop and suspect are in the country illegally. It also makes it a state crime to lack immigration documents.

Some police departments say little may change on Thursday because many officers already check the status of people they believe are committing crimes.

Instead, the biggest effect of the law may be psychological. It marks the enactment of a new state policy, known as attrition through enforcement, to push illegal immigrants out of Arizona by making clear they’re not wanted. And it has convinced some Latino citizens, like the Varelas, that they are also under attack.

Juan Varela’s parents moved from Texas to south Phoenix in 1952, when cornfields still lay near their small house. They raised 14 children who felt comfortable in the mostly white town.

“I felt like I was just part of society,” said Susie Mendoza, one of Juan Varela’s sisters. She didn’t even teach her children Spanish, which was regularly spoken at home in her childhood.

Juan Varela, who coached a diverse Little League baseball team, was deeply religious and had a troubled past. He was convicted of aggravated assault in 2008 and had spent years on disability. Less than two weeks after Brewer signed SB 1070, he and Antonio Varela, who lived next door, discussed a documentary they had seen about Emmett Till, a black teenager in Mississippi who was killed after reportedly whistling at a white woman in 1955. They saw new relevance in the tragic tale.

“I said, ‘Man, if we don’t watch ourselves, things are going to be that bad here,’ ” Antonio Varela recalled. “He said, ‘Let’s pray on that.’ It was constant. Every time you turned to a [television] channel, it was SB 1070.”

Days later, on May 6, Antonio drove his mother, who lives with Juan, to the local Kmart. Afterward, as he pulled into the driveway to drop her off, he saw Kelley walking toward his brother in his front yard.

According to police documents, Antonio said he heard Kelley yell, “Go back to Mexico!” and warn Juan that he was going to die if he didn’t leave. Juan confronted Kelley on the sidewalk. He kicked at Kelley but missed, Antonio said. Kelley pulled a pistol from his waistband and shot Juan, the documents say.

In an interview, Antonio said Kelley tried to shoot him too, but the gun misfired. Kelley ran to his house and emerged only when police arrived, holding a can of beer, which he poured over his head. According to police documents, Kelley said that Juan Varela had kicked him in the groin and that he was defending himself.

According to police, Kelley, 50, told officers, “I love all people — white, black or Hispanic, and I am not racist in any way.”

Two city councilmen later came to the neighborhood, along with police spokesman Thompson, saying that the killing did not seem racially motivated. They were relying on statements from people like Ana Gutierrez, who said Kelley used to chat with her parents, who were his neighbors, and spent Thanksgiving at their house. She said Kelley told her father days before the shooting that he opposed SB 1070.

“It’s just weird to hear them say he’s racist,” Gutierrez said.

Lydia Guzman, a prominent local immigrants rights activist, said she and others organizing protests against SB 1070 were wary of the case. “This guy did not get shot because he was Mexican,” Guzman said. “We are being extra cautious” about making such claims, she added.

The Varela family, baffled that racial elements of the incident have been downplayed, held news conferences demanding hate-crime charges. They said the Phoenix police chief had asked them to stay quiet about the case — an assertion that is completely inaccurate, according to the department.

In June, family members met with Maricopa County Atty. Richard Romley, who added the hate-crime allegation against Kelley. Romley said at a news conference that the extra allegation, which can enhance the penalties against Kelley, was added because of witness statements. A spokesman for Romley said he could not elaborate.

The Varela family says that the hate-crime allegation is a small comfort but that the public needs to know the threat the new law has created.

“We want the governor to understand that what she’s doing is causing crimes to take place,” Mendoza said.

Two doors down from the Varela home, Kelley’s house is still partly occupied. Fernando Perez, a construction worker, has rented half the house from Kelley for the last year. He said he never heard his landlord make biased remarks. He is skeptical that the immigration law had anything to do with Varela’s death, pinning the blame instead on what he believes was a simple dispute.

“Don’t blame the law,” he said, “if your own actions are to blame.”

nicholas.riccardi@latimes.com


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