Residents defend Arizona after immigration law

Christie Vollmecke has one thing to say to people calling Arizona racist for passing the toughest law against illegal immigration in the nation: You don’t know what we’re going through.

There are constant reports on television of criminals smuggling migrants. Just Friday night, a sheriff’s deputy patrolling the desert was wounded in a shootout with suspected drug traffickers. Vollmecke says she is too scared to visit the southern part of the state anymore.

“I don’t think I’m racist; I don’t think the vast majority of us are racist,” the 57-year-old real estate agent said. “I just want to feel safe in my own state.”

Arizona’s law, signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer last month, makes it a state crime to lack immigration papers and requires police to determine whether people are in the country legally. It has sparked national calls for boycotts, protest marches across the country and biting cartoons that compare the state to Nazi Germany.

Chandler is the sort of comfortable, conservative suburb that politicians point to when they claim broad local support for the law — 70% of likely voters backed it in one statewide poll. Even here, though, there’s a wide range of opinions on the law’s merits.

Chandler is a prototypical Phoenix suburb: stucco subdivisions, golf courses, shopping centers and lots of palm and palo verde trees. Its crime rate is comparable to that of Redondo Beach. But residents say it’s more than just crime that causes them to be unhappy about illegal immigrants.

Jessica Lonkard, 30, noted that developers were trying to sell new condominiums in the town’s faded downtown. “They have 50 day laborers on every street corner every day,” she said. “How are they going to sell those?”

Her husband, Nick, added that the law may be “a little drastic,” but said it could allow authorities to go round up day laborers at, say, the local Home Depot without bothering Latinos who are citizens.

“I don’t like racial profiling,” said Nick, 30. Then he paused. “I guess I do.” He concluded: “Something’s got to be done.”

David Padilla used those exact same words to describe his thoughts on the immigration mess. But the 47-year-old garbage collector and U.S. citizen fears police will now be focused on Latinos like himself.

“I don’t want to have to carry around my passport,” he said. "[But] something’s got to be done; you can’t have people just running back and forth across the border.”

Arizona became the most popular illegal crossing point in the nation in the late 1990s, after increased security on the California border drove migrants east. Crime has steadily dropped here despite that influx, but the routes used by illegal immigrants looking for work are also used by drug smugglers. Despite the numbers showing the state is becoming safer, many Arizonans think crime is on the rise.

Stephanie De La Ossa, 36, grew up near the border in southern Arizona, and remembers how eerie it was to have strangers running through the yard, speaking another language. She’s married to a Latino man and said those who accuse Arizona of racism are wrong.

“A lot of people haven’t lived in this state,” she said of the critics. “They’re making it into a race issue, but for the normal, law-abiding citizen it’s not.”

Local critics and supporters of the law agree on at least one point: The rest of the country needs to stop hating on Arizona.

“I feel sad for Arizona. We’re always looked on as cowboy and backward,” said Malcolm Hartnell, 59, a teacher who opposes the law. His son-in-law, of Filipino descent, is constantly pulled over by law enforcement officers who are trying to find illegal immigrants. “But Arizona is really a great place to live,” he added.

Gjergj Mihilli, 59, owns Mama Mia, a shop at the southern edge of Chandler’s downtown that caters to Latino immigrants. He argues that the immigrant influx has been good for the city’s economy and safety. “When Ronald Reagan was president, he gave amnesty to 10 million Mexicans,” said Mihilli, an immigrant from Italy. “The colors of the flag of this country did not change.”

He too is dismayed by the reaction of the country to Arizona’s new law — but only because he fears the backlash will devastate the economy. He cited a Chicago friend who called him after the law was passed and asked, “What’s going on in Arizona?”

It was more than a bout of friendly ribbing. The man is in the hotel industry and was looking to open new locations in the state. He has since decided that the atmosphere is too toxic for that.