Arizona immigration law an unpleasant reminder of Chandler’s past

In late July 1997, police officers fanned out across this Phoenix suburb searching for illegal immigrants. Working side by side with Border Patrol agents, police demanded proof of citizenship from children walking home from school, grandmothers shopping at the market and employees driving to work.

At the end of what became known as the Chandler Roundup, 432 illegal immigrants had been arrested and deported. But during those five days, local police and federal officers also detained dozens of U.S. citizens and legal residents — often stopping them because they spoke Spanish or looked Mexican.

Now, as Arizona prepares to enact SB 1070, the controversial new immigration law, many of Chandler’s Latino residents say they are reminded of those terrifying days — and fearful of a repeat of the past.

“SB 1070 just brought home the point: If you are Hispanic or Mexican, you are just not wanted in Arizona,” said Joe Garcia, 65, a U.S. citizen who owned a video store in downtown Chandler and helped form a civil rights coalition to demand answers after the roundup.

The state attorney general later determined that authorities had engaged in racial profiling and violated the rights of residents.

The new law, which takes effect July 29, during the 13th anniversary of the sweeps, requires police to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop for another lawful reason and suspect is in the country illegally. It also makes it a state crime to lack proper immigration papers. Gov. Jan Brewer has said that racial profiling will not be tolerated under the law, which is supported by a majority of Arizona residents.

Though not well-known outside Arizona, the Chandler Roundup wasn’t unique. Throughout U.S. history, raids conducted by local police and federal immigration agents have resulted in the deportation of U.S. citizens, according to Francisco Balderrama, a Chicano studies professor at Cal State Los Angeles.

In the 1930s, beginning with a dramatic raid in Los Angeles at La Placita Olvera, federal agents and police arrested more than a million people in operations around the U.S. and sent them to Mexico. By researching records at Mexican consulates, Balderrama estimates that as many as 60% of those deported were U.S. citizens. Other deportation efforts, including the infamous Operation Wetback, continued into the 1940s and 1950s.

Balderrama said that history accounts for some of the unease in the Latino community about SB 1070. “It underscores the situation that your skin color and your surname are used as ways of measuring if you are American or not,” he said.

Teresa Rodriguez, 69, knows what it is like to be singled out. Although she — and her parents — were born in the United States, Rodriguez was stopped three times by Chandler police and Border Patrol agents during the roundup.

In one incident, she was speaking Spanish to a friend while walking to the store to pick up medicine for her grandson. A police officer on a bicycle came up on one side of her, an immigration officer on the other. She recalled one saying in Spanish, “You don’t belong here, do you?”

When Rodriguez, who speaks English, answered in Spanish that she was a citizen and that her birth certificate was at home, they didn’t believe her. She said the police officer grabbed her arm and forced her to sit on the curb until she finally convinced them that she was a citizen.

“They made me feel like I was being stepped on, like I was an animal,” she said.

Garcia, a retired Mesa police lieutenant, and his wife, Rosalia, said they were still disappointed and angry about the way officers behaved during the roundup. Rosalia remembered customers fleeing into the video shop and police officers on bicycles arbitrarily stopping people. “They were literally sweeping, coming through the sidewalks” until finally, she said, the streets were empty.

“Police officers, knowing full well what probable cause they needed, just ignored the law and took the law into their own hands,” Joe Garcia said.

“If you were Hispanic, you were a target,” he said. “Especially if you had a dark complexion.”

Arizona State University professor Mary Romero, who specializes in social justice issues and has written several articles about Chandler, said authorities even used reports with some information completed in advance: nationality, Mexican; skin color, medium; hair color, black; occupation, laborer.

Stephen Montoya, a lawyer who represented U.S. citizens and legal residents in a lawsuit against the city, said the new Arizona law paves the way for more such raids. “It knocks down the wall and legitimizes a constant, statewide roundup,” he said.

Chandler authorities, who conducted the sweeps as part of a plan to revitalize the city, settled the lawsuit with 29 plaintiffs for $400,000 and pledged to not let it happen again. And in 1999, the City Council adopted a policy saying police could only ask about the immigration status of people arrested on suspicion of felonies and certain misdemeanors.

Mayor Boyd Dunn, who was on the City Council at the time, said in an interview that “mistakes were made” and that officers engaged in racial profiling. But he said the department has since conducted extensive officer training and outreach to the Latino community.

Earlier this year, in anticipation of SB 1070 becoming law, the council unanimously repealed the 1999 policy and gave police more freedom to ask the immigration status of people arrested.

“We need to give our officers discretion and tools to make sure the bad guys are caught,” Chandler Police Chief Sherry Kiyler said.

Dunn said the policy change, which he considered the “closing chapter” on the roundup, was necessary to bring Chandler up-to-date with other Arizona cities. Dunn said SB 1070 wouldn’t result in anything like what happened 13 years ago. “We will protect not only our citizens, but their rights,” he said.

Chandler, once a small agricultural town, now has a population of 250,000 and is home to several high-tech factories. The city is 21% Latino. The downtown square is surrounded by new condos, shops and restaurants, including a tea house and an upscale bridal store.

A few blocks down Arizona Avenue, however, day laborers still wait for work, as they have for years. One of the workers, Nasario Ramos, 38, said he was deported to Mexico during the roundup and sneaked back into the U.S. days later. Ramos said he worried that the calm that had prevailed in Chandler for 13 years was about to end. “It’s going to be worse than ’97,” he said.

Illegal immigrants like Ramos continue to be a sore point for some residents of Chandler. Fred Blevins, 62, said that although he believed police went too far when they stopped U.S. citizens in 1997, something had to be done. He supports SB 1070 as a way to get more illegal immigrants out of Arizona and believes local police will do it the right way.

“Chandler learned its lesson,” he said. “They got slapped.”

In addition to the legal settlement after the sweeps, Chandler authorities also formed a human relations commission to promote dialogue and started several cultural events to celebrate the Latino community.

Chandler community activist Juanita Encinas said the city made efforts to build bridges with the Latino community but a level of distrust remains. “The scars will never go away,” she said.

For Rodriguez, who said she received about $27,000 of the cash settlement, a reminder of the roundup is never far away. Whenever she leaves the house, she brings along her birth certificate.