Immigration Debate Heats Up in Phoenix

A street corner in Phoenix becomes the latest hotspot for dramatic confrontation over the nation's immigration issue. Immigration rights activists and anti-immigration forces have competing protests over immigration laws.

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With a little or no action in Washington over the immigration issue, the debate has moved to the rest of the country.

In Phoenix, a drama unfolds weekly on one particular street corner. As NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

(Soundbite of yelling)

TED ROBBINS: The yelling between two men - one Hispanic, one Anglo - pretty well sums up the current extremes of the immigration debate. The man yelling in Spanish says the people are here, the other, the one yelling get legal or go home, holds an American flag. The scene is Pruitt's Home Furnishings in Central Phoenix. Inside, owner Mike Sensing says he's caught in the middle.

Mr. MIKE SENSING (Owner, Pruitt's Home Furnishings): Well, I mean, it affects us business-wise. Our business is off some. It affects you personally because this is all you pretty much deal with all week.

ROBBINS: It all started when dozens, sometimes hundreds, of men were forced to leave a nearby Home Depot parking lot. The men, many of them in the country illegally, had gathered for years seeking work as day laborers. They moved down the street to Pruitt's parking lot. The Phoenix police told Mike Sensing they didn't have the manpower to enforce trespassing or loitering laws. So Sensing asked the county sheriff's department to help.

Mr. SENSING: And on their own, they decided to take it a different angle and enforce immigration. So that was never our intension.

Sheriff JOE ARPAIO (Maricopa County, Arizona): Since the Phoenix police are not doing it; the elected sheriff is doing it, okay?

ROBBINS: That's Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed toughest cop in America. Arpaio aggressively enforces a controversial state law allowing him to arrest people on immigration charges. Over the last couple of months, his officers have busted roughly 60 people near Pruitt's. And all fall, immigrant right's activists have been holding regular Saturday protest of the arrests. Alfredo Gutierrez is a former Arizona State senator and one of the protestors.

Mr. ALFREDO GUTIERREZ (Former Democratic Senator of Arizona): We have a sheriff that's out of control that's using openly, blatantly, and with apparently great pride, racial profiling as a means to impose immigration law.

ROBBINS: After a few weekends, counter-protesters begun showing up to support the sheriff like Bobby Wright(ph) who owns a welding business.

Mr. BOBBY WRIGHT (Resident, Arizona): I deal with illegal immigration on a daily basis. When I go to bid a job, I have to deal with 15 other illegal immigrants that are bidding the same job that don't pay payroll taxes. They don't pay state unemployment taxes. They don't pay liability insurance.

ROBBINS: Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon says the dispute has gotten out of hand.

Mayor PHIL GORDON (Democrat, Phoenix, Arizona): The rhetoric, the debate -nationally, as well as here locally - has escalated to where extremists on the fringes of this debate have taken over logic.

ROBBINS: But pressure apparently caused Mayor Gordon to withdraw his support for Phoenix's status as a so-called sanctuary city. He appointed a panel to rewrite a 20-year-old policy forbidding police from asking anyone's immigration status. That, of course, riled the original protestors. So yesterday, they walked two miles from Pruitt's furniture to city hall to confront the mayor.

(Soundbite of people rallying)

Unidentified Woman: (Foreign language spoken)

Unidentified Group: (Foreign language spoken)

ROBBINS: It seems as though no one agrees on anything here when it comes to immigration, but that's not true. Everyone I spoke with agrees on one thing. As Bobby Wright asks…

Mr. WRIGHT: Is Washington, D.C. dealing with this today? Is anybody from Washington that knows anything about Phoenix, Arizona here?

ROBBINS: Wright and others agree the problem won't go away here or anywhere else until Washington overhauls the immigration system, something Congress says won't happen until after the next election. Meanwhile, if a court allows it, Arizona will soon enforce its own sanctions against employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. And the debate will continue.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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