A calm voice on Arizona’s immigration law

As usual when the topic is immigration, there’s lots of heat out there and very little light.

The anti-illegal immigration law in Arizona has been called Nazi-like by Los Angeles Cardinal Roger Mahony and condemned by Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, but it’s been hailed by others around the country as a triumphant breakthrough. So, readers are asking me, which side am I on?

I’m on the side of a federal reform bill that controls the border, provides legal crossings when employers need help and recognizes that it would be cheaper and better for society to have current illegals come clean and pay fines than to round up and deport them.

But mostly I’m on the side of Manny Davila, a recently retired Phoenix cop I met 11 years ago when I wrote about a fellow officer of his who was killed by illegal immigrants during a drug bust. The killing sparked a nasty backlash against immigrants in Arizona, and Davila, who was born in Mexico, had a unique perspective. That’s why I wanted to check with him Friday to ask what he made of his state’s being once again at the center of the nation’s never-ending immigration debate.

“I can see both sides of the issue,” Davila said. “But it’s a very complex problem and because it’s complex, so many people fail to look beyond that statement, ‘What part of illegal don’t you understand?’ ”

Davila, 60, is no supporter of illegal immigration, but he understands the economic despair that drives families north.

His father, a laborer, moved back and forth across the border in search of work as a young man, both legally and illegally, until finally taking up legal residence in Arizona. Davila recalls being ridiculed in school for not being fluent in English, and he remembers his mother telling him to toughen up because education was his best shot.

When I met Davila in 1999, he had two kids in college and was about to complete work on a master’s degree himself, something he’d worked on at night as he rose through the ranks of the Phoenix Police Department. As a cop, he worked hard, in a tough neighborhood, to get Latinos to trust the mostly white police force and to get police to understand and work with the community.

Then, came the spring day in 1999 when it seemed that all the progress Davila had overseen might come unraveled.

On the evening of March 26, Officer Marc Atkinson, the father of a 7-month old son, gave chase to suspects in his police car, only to have them stop, pull weapons and shoot him dead.

Civilian witnesses tracked down two fleeing suspects. A third suspect was shot and detained by a security guard who was on his way to work when he came upon the scene.

All three suspects were illegal immigrants, and there was $7,000 worth of cocaine in the glove box of their car and a shotgun in the trunk.

“You had people calling the radio talk shows to take their shots,” Davila told me back then. “It started with illegal aliens, and then it was, ‘Let’s send all the Mexicans back.’ ”

His officers were on edge too, and Davila — immigrant, cop, peacemaker — found himself trying to keep the neighborhood from blowing.

“I told people that it’s not whites or Hispanics who killed Marc,” he said back then. “It’s drug-dealing cop killers. The issue isn’t ethnicity — it’s crime and drugs.”

And soon, more moderate voices in the community began to echo those sentiments. When disparate groups came together for a march and vigil in support of the police and in honor of Atkinson, the slain officer’s wife was thanked, both in English and Spanish.

As a side note, the civilian security guard who shot one of the suspects was an Irish American named Rory Vertigan. He told me he was uncomfortable with the praise heaped on him by the anti-immigrant crowd. His girlfriend was Latina, and on the night of the vigil for Atkinson, he parked a block away and quietly watched the candlelight procession, alone with his thoughts.

Davila, meanwhile, retired in February after 35 years on the force.

“I’m amazed — I guess I shouldn’t be — that 70% of the people support this law, according to polls,” he said.

If running out illegal immigrants saves a cop’s life, he said, that would be wonderful. But he worries that this law will distract officers from their real mission: preventing crime and catching criminals.

“What are they going to do, give officers a color chart to see how brown a person is, and if they’re too brown, they must be an illegal?” Davila asked.

He shares the LAPD’s official position, and that of many Arizona police departments, that immigration matters are better left to the feds.

“One thing we worked on year in and year out was to get the trust and confidence of people who are undocumented, because as witnesses and as victims, we need to talk to them,” Davila said. “We can’t do that if they fear being deported.”

I asked Davila what he planned to do in retirement.

Volunteer, he said. At two social service agencies that help immigrants try to become productive citizens.

Well, he can forget a career in Arizona politics.