Immigrants Flex Political Muscle In Arizona

While some immigrants are worried about Arizona's new immigration law — and say they'll leave the state — others are vowing to stay and fight, and they're encouraging others to flex their political muscles.

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This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

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And I'm Robert Siegel.

Arizona's tough new immigration law continues to provoke controversy and protest. And now, it's apparently persuading some illegal immigrants that it's time to leave the state. Many have been in Arizona for decades but now worry that a minor traffic stop could turn their lives upside down.

NPR's Ted Robbins has the story of one such man in Tucson.

TED ROBBINS: Alex Garcia waters the trees in his front yard though he's not sure how much longer he'll be here.

Mr. ALEX GARCIA: Well, the house is going to probably be sold.

ROBBINS: Until now, the 39-year-old husband and father of three says he's had a happy life. Garcia wears a polo shirt and pressed jeans. He's a business owner and an illegal immigrant.

(Soundbite of banging)

ROBBINS: We walk inside his small house on Tucson's west side and sit on the sofa. Garcia came to Tucson from Hermosillo, Mexico, through a hole in a barbed wire border fence 18 years ago. He has a remodeling and maintenance business, which in good times, employed 14 people. He resents being called a drain on society.

Mr. GARCIA: You know, most of the illegal immigrants pay their taxes. Where's that money? Where - do they call it something different or is it not taxes because it comes from an illegal alien?

ROBBINS: Garcia says he used to feel welcome in Arizona. But now he feels angry, frustrated and afraid that if he's stopped by police for any reason, he'll be deported to Mexico, separating him from his wife who is also here illegally, and his children who are U.S. citizens.

So Garcia is going to do what some of his friends have already done: Take his family and leave the state. Probably move to New Mexico where he says there's work and a friendly atmosphere or back to Mexico.

Mr. GARCIA: We are not being free to let people here. And - well, you tell me what can what are the other options that we have.

Mr. SALVADOR REZA (Activist): You know, get ready but don't leave.

ROBBINS: Salvador Reza is a Hispanic community activist in Phoenix. He urges illegal immigrants like Garcia to put money away for emergencies, such as hiring a lawyer, but to stay at least until it's certain that the new Arizona law S.B.1070 survives numerous legal challenges and takes effect later this summer.

Mr. REZA: Once you leave, then the 18 years of your life where you wanted to create a (unintelligible) your family and everything else will go down the drain.

ROBBINS: Reza is working to organize the Hispanic community into barrio defense committees, sort of enhanced and reverse neighborhood watches, which will quickly warn illegal immigrants if law enforcement is in the area and take care of families if people get arrested.

Mr. REZA: They make sure that people, that the kids have food if one of the parents gets deported.

ROBBINS: Reza says the community organizing is in its early stages. He hopes to organize Phoenix in a way which can be replicated in cities across the country. Ultimately, the goal is for Hispanic citizens to speak for non-citizens and claim political power by voting.

(Soundbite of protest)

Ms. ISELA ROMNEY(ph): I wish all of us vote.

ROBBINS: Isela Romney spoke with me at a rally against the new Arizona law. She came here 30 years ago. She now lives in the Phoenix area legally. In Arizona and elsewhere, Hispanics tend to vote in lower numbers than the rest of the population. Romney says it's not because they are lazy or don't care, it's because they're working - in her case, 13 hours a day as a cashier in a cafeteria.

Ms. ROMNEY: That's what the educated people don't understand, that we work too hard, too many hours, too little money, so we don't have time for these things. This is not our priority.

ROBBINS: Do you think now it will become your priority?

Ms. ROMNEY: It should come but I don't know because we still have to support our families.

ROBBINS: Which is why Alex Garcia is leaving Tucson: To protect and take care of his family by finding a more welcoming place than Arizona.

Ted Robbins, NPR News, Tucson.

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