Latino Immigrants Brace For Arizona Immigration Law

Arizona's new immigration law was to have gone into effect today, and even with a Federal judge blocking its key provisions, there’s evidence of an exodus of some Hispanic residents…who’ve lready moved to places they believe will be friendlier toward immigrants, legal and not. Host Michel Martin speaks with Arizona residents Gonzalo de la Melena, owner of the Pollo Campero franchise restaurant in Phoenix, and Terri Leon, Chief Operating Officer of Friendly House, a social services agency in Phoenix, to discuss what they are seeing and hearing from clients, patrons and relatives.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

This was supposed to be the day that that controversial law aimed at curbing illegal immigration in Arizona was to be in full force. You probably know by now that key elements of that law have been put on hold by a federal judge. But the anecdotal evidence suggests that the law is having an effect on many people's behavior, even though it has not actually gone into effect. We'll find out why people are saying that.

And that massive oil leak may have been capped, but the effect on the well being of thousands of Gulf Coast residents is far from certain. We'll speak with three people whose lives and livelihoods are closely tied to the Gulf. We'll get their sense of the way things are now.

And, later, hip hop French Chilean style. Rapper Ana Tijoux is with us.

But first, to Arizona where that new legislation aimed at forcing illegal immigrants out of the state has made so much news.

A federal judge has blocked the most hotly contested provisions of the new law. State officials say that they will appeal. But the anecdotal evidence among small businesses and agencies that serve the Hispanic immigrant population suggests that an effect is being felt anyway.

We wanted to know more about this, so we've called Terri Leon. She's the COO of a social services organization called Friendly House. And Gonzalo de la Melena. He's the owner of a Pollo Campero franchise restaurant in Phoenix. And they're both with me now. Thanks so much for joining us.

Ms. TERRI LEON (COO, Friendly House): Thank you for having us.

Mr. GONZALO DE LA MELENA (Owner, Pollo Campero): Nice to be here.

MARTIN: So, Terri, let's start with you. Your organization Friendly House offers its services to the immigrant community in Phoenix. Can you just give a sense of what kinds of things you do?

Ms. LEON: Well, we started in 1920 under a federal grant through the settlement house movement, welcoming immigrants to this country, helping them with the integration process into this country. And today we're defending their rights. We do immigration law, teach English. We're (unintelligible) among varying other services.

MARTIN: So what are seeing in your office in terms of numbers and also what people are telling you? Are you seeing a decrease in the number of people coming in, an increase what are you seeing?

Ms. LEON: Well, initially we saw an increase. People having all kinds of questions wanting to know what this law means. We've seen a decrease since the law went into effect. But what I do anticipate and what I feel our responsibility is as an organization is to report to the community now that the judge has ruled what exactly does this mean for the community.

Families are calling us saying, what do I do? Do I need to pack up my families and leave? What do I need to be careful of? So now we need to let them know that this step that the judge has taken is a real relief to our community. That they don't need to be in fear anymore of their families being separated. Though I have to say, the damage has been done and we have...

MARTIN: But what do you mean the damage has been done? You're saying initially people haven't so what are you saying?

Ms. LEON: The fear. The fear has been instilled and people are afraid and we're starting to see people leaving the state in numbers.

MARTIN: Terri, how do you know people are leaving the state? Are they telling you that they're leaving?

Ms. LEON: Yes. Some of our families are withdrawing. They're telling us where they're going. They're asking for paperwork. They're going to be transferring it to different attorneys or to different agencies to be able to seek the assistance that they need.

MARTIN: And they say it's because of the law? They feel that they what is it that they're saying? Why are they doing this?

Ms. LEON: They're in fear. They're afraid of primarily that their families will be separated.

MARTIN: Gonzalo, what about you? Have you noticed an effect on your business with people coming in and what are they saying?

Mr. DE LA MELENA: Yes. I think in general there's been a real unfavorable impact as a result of the law on the economy. And just to build on what Terri's saying, there's been this general sense of fear and intimidation by certain sectors of law enforcement. And that's been unhealthy for businesses, particularly in the retail sector there's decline in traffic.

And to Terri's point, there's really been a mass exodus of a lot of the immigrants who are contributors to our economy. They are consumers in our restaurants, they pay rent, they pay retail taxes. They're an important critical contributor to our workforce.

And, you know, just anecdotally, when you drive certain areas around town on the weekends you'll see lots of yard sales, people packing up. They'll come into the restaurant and have their last meal. You know, there's just less families spending less money and spending less time hanging out, you know, in retail locations or in the mall.

MARTIN: And how do you know it's the law as opposed to the economy in general, the recession? I mean that's one of the things that people tend to cut back on is eating out.

Mr. DE LA MELENA: Well, as a small business owner, you know, it's important to be connected with your consumer. And you talk to your consumers and you get a sense of what's driving their behavior and a lot of them are scared. And as a result of that, consumer confidence drops.

MARTIN: Well, tell me exactly what people are saying to you. Are they saying they literally don't want to come out in public because they're afraid of being harassed?

Mr. DE LA MELENA: Yes. And there's been several incidences of crime suppression or raids that have happened in certain areas of town or on certain businesses. And that creates that direct linkage of the fear factor which, again, has that direct negative impact on people's consumer confidence and going out into town.

MARTIN: Can you give me any numbers, for example, just from month to month, like, how you've noticed an impact here, like in terms of anything the number of customers coming in, the receipts? Can you give me any parameters?

Mr. DE LA MELENA: It's hard to teeth out the independent factors because, as you know, we're facing the perfect storm here in Arizona and in Phoenix as a result of the economy. And then you pile on the immigration legislation. But it's not unheard of that many of the retail sector businesses are down between 30 and 60 percent year over year, which is devastating in an industry that already has, you know, small margins.

MARTIN: Gonzalo, can I ask you, are the people who aren't coming in, are they undocumented or are they documented and anticipating that they're not going to be well treated? Or is it a situation where people call blended families where some members are documented, some members are not. And sort of out of concern for the undocumented members, they're laying low. Do you have a sense of it?

Mr. DE LA MELENA: Well, again, it's hard to tell exactly. But I think to your point, there's many blended families and the effect is far reaching. And so, you know, one little anecdotal point is there's been maybe a shift towards more drive-thru business. So instead of people coming through and spending time inside the restaurant, one individual will come through drive-thru, pick up a family pack and take it home.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin. We're talking about how the Hispanic immigrant community or the Hispanic community in general in Phoenix is faring. This is the first day that that tough immigration law was supposed to go into effect. And even though key provisions of the law have been put on hold by a federal judge, we're hearing anecdotal evidence that the discussion of the law has had an effect on the behavior and the sense of well being of many people of Hispanic descent in Arizona anyway.

To talk about this, I'm joined by Gonzalo de la Melena. He's the owner of a Pollo Campero franchise restaurant in Phoenix. Also, I'm joined by Terri Leon of the social service organization Friendly House, which offers services to the immigrant community.

Terri, would you pick up the point there, too, are you hearing from people who are mainly undocumented who are worried about or people who are in what we call blended families where some members are documented, some members are undocumented? You have to assume if people are undocumented they are most concerned. But I'm wondering if the concern ripples beyond that as well.

Ms. LEON: Well, certainly it ripples beyond that. Can you imagine going to work in the morning, getting pulled over and never being able to see your daughter again, or your son again, or your wife again? Or at least not being able to see them for 10 to 15 years, or who knows when you'll be able to see them. So that is the concern that we see a lot in our school.

We have calls coming into the agency asking our immigration department, what do I do? And all we can do is advice to let them know that these are the facts. This is the impact. These are the things you need to be careful of. For example, making sure your car is in good working order. You don't want to give the law enforcement a reason to pull you over.

So, you know, most of us don't have to live and drive under those kinds of pressures on a daily basis on top of that wondering, you know, if I'm going to get pulled over. And as Gonzalo mentioned, the many workplace raids that have occurred, in fact, there's one happening this morning that our sheriff is implementing. And people afraid to go to work because they're going to, you know, maybe be arrested.

And then what does that do to the employer? The employer has to continue delivering his service. And then when half his workforce is afraid to come into work that day, then it makes doing business as usual very challenging.

MARTIN: You mentioned you're advising people to try to keep their cars in good working order to observe all the traffic laws. But what else are you telling people? When people are saying, do I have to leave, what are you saying?

Ms. LEON: Well, we can't make that decision for them. We tell them that they need to make that decision for themselves as a family. And even so, families are choosing either to return to their country or choosing to go to other states, where the environment is more welcoming and more friendly.

MARTIN: So, obviously, if I could ask that you're continuing to live and work in Arizona and you're not affected by the law per se, okay? But I do want to ask if it affects the way you feel about where you live.

Ms. LEON: You know, Michel, I'm a fifth generation Arizonan and I used to be very proud of that fact, and I still am. Arizona still is a great state to live. But I am embarrassed. Everywhere we go, no matter where we are in the country, people, oh, where are you from? Oh, from Arizona. Oh, what's wrong with you people over there? That's difficult to take. And it's tiring to have to stand up and defend, if you will, our state and what's going on over there.

MARTIN: But, you know, Terri, the polls suggest the national public opinion polls suggest that the majority of those surveyed actually support the law.

Ms. LEON: Well, I think to respond to that is that I think what people support, not so much the law itself as they recognize the need for comprehensive immigration reform. And I think that's what people really are supporting more than this actual law.

MARTIN: And, Gonzalo, what about you? Arizona is your home as well, and the law isn't aimed at you. Has it affected the way you feel about your home?

Mr. DE LA MELENA: Well, I think it has a halo effect over all of us that reside and do business here. There's a real perception and image issue. As a result of it, companies are less excited about investing in Arizona, which is a challenge for us moving forward. All of those things that we rely on to help grow our economy over the long term have just come to a screeching halt that will take years to recuperate that momentum.

MARTIN: And how do you respond to the information that the polls show that much of the country a majority of voters to this point do support the law? A majority of voters in Arizona and around the country do support it. What how do you respond to that?

Mr. DE LA MELENA: Well, I think also the reports and the polls show that as people get more educated on the issue, that there's a more open mindset to a more comprehensive solution as opposed to a piecemeal legislation. The good news is this now a major step into having rational discussion. The U.S. government is the quarterback and we can't have individual states, you know, hijacking federal authority in ways that violate American values.

MARTIN: Gonzalo de la Melena is owner of a Pollo Campero restaurant in Phoenix. Terri Leon is COO of Friendly House. That's a social services group a long-standing social services group that assists Phoenix, Arizona's Hispanic immigrant community. And they were both kind enough to join us from Phoenix. Thank you both so much for speaking to us.

Ms. LEON: Thank you.

Mr. DE LA MELENA: Thank you, Michel.

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