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Your Tax Dollars at Work

As stressed immigrant communities live in fear, law-enforcement agencies reap financial rewards

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The morning of April 15 broke warm and clear, as steady traffic cruised South Sixth Avenue, humming past the flower shop and the auto shop and the bustling McDonald's, where groggy commuters idled in a long drive-through line for orange juice and Egg McMuffins.

Further south, Nati's Beauty Salon was silent, its chairs empty in the early light. But down the block, the shuttle companies that hustle people from Nogales to Tucson and perhaps on to Phoenix were preparing for another handful of departures. In threadbare waiting rooms, or outside in the slivers of sun, red-eyed passengers nodded to one another and sipped small, bitter cups of coffee.

At first, few people paid much notice to a contingent of police cruisers sweeping past, their top lights glinting in the nascent sunlight. Down here on South Sixth Avenue, folks aren't exactly unacquainted with flashing red and blue, or the squealing rubber of squad cars in pursuit.

And so it was not until federal agents spilled out of their vehicles in a flurry of firepower and black windbreakers that the assorted denizens of Sixth Avenue started to take notice.

Meanwhile, some 65 miles south on Interstate 19, residents of Nogales watched a fleet of unmarked vehicles pour into town just before dawn. Later, to a reporter from the Nogales International, witnesses would describe the swarms of federal agents, reinforced by choppers circling overhead.

Ultimately, the incursion that morning, aptly called Operation in Plain Sight, would involve some 800 federal officers and city police.

Though this was a surprise assault on a human-smuggling ring allegedly funneled through the shuttles, TV crews were apparently tipped off in advance. A reporter from KVOA Channel 4 was on South Sixth Avenue as the bust unfolded and crowds of onlookers began to build.

Opinions on the street were mixed. At least one observer applauded the move. "I'm happy to see them," Rudy Garcia told KVOA's Greg Dingrando. "My federal tax dollars at work, I like seeing that."

Another passer-by, Enrique Vega, had a different take on the Tucson cops and federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents maneuvering en masse. "They probably didn't have nothing else to do today," he told the TV news team. "I'm sure there's a lot of crack dealers and heroin dealers out there in the street that need to be caught—not people who are just trying to come over here to just make a dollar."

But this raid—reportedly two years in the making and involving everyone from undercover cops to paid informants—was also reverberating through the anxious and insular immigrant community on Tucson's southside.

Clarisa Flores' phone began ringing around 6:30 a.m. It didn't stop for hours. Updates from her neighbors in the heavily Hispanic neighborhoods near Sixth Avenue seemed scattershot, almost panicky. "I was being told that there were a lot of cars parked along Sixth Avenue," Flores says, "police cars and Border Patrol."

It wasn't surprising that Flores was fielding such calls: As an immigrant-rights promotora with the Tucson-based Border Action Network, she'd become the point person among an extended network of families representing a mishmash of immigration statuses. Many had at least one undocumented person—an uncle, a brother, a wife—living under their roof.

Times were already tense. In March, a Cochise County rancher had been found shot to death on his range; a smuggler was the suspected killer. And in Phoenix, a measure known as SB 1070 was winding its way through the Arizona State Legislature. Protests had erupted over the proposed law, which would make it a crime to be in Arizona without immigration documents, and would greatly expand the powers of local police to enforce immigration laws.

This convergence of events, coupled with the police raid, had many residents of Tucson's southside running for cover. Rumors were running wild, Flores recalls. "People were very frightened. They thought ICE was just walking up and down Sixth Avenue, picking people up for the sake of picking them up. They didn't know or think it was a structured operation. People we knew were leaving the area."

In all, agents swept up 47 suspects along the notorious smuggling corridor from Nogales to Phoenix. But more than six months later, the anxious outfall of that massive operation remains.

Today, Flores sits in the Border Action Network office, a few miles north from where the shuttle raids occurred. She is a small woman who speaks in staccato and intense Spanish. "It's not the fact that they have these operations," she tells me. "It's the way they carry them out that scares people. It's psychological. They have something to do, but they have to be very aware about the way that they do it."

Even after learning that this ICE operation was long planned and specifically focused, the neighborhoods are hardly at ease, Flores says. "The poor people there have more to lose. It's clear that (ICE) has a particular target—immigrants on the southside of Tucson."

Rick Crocker is the ICE deputy special agent in charge of Tucson. He says his agents have no intention of frightening innocent people. In fact, his community-relations officer contacted the Border Action Network as April's arrests were unfolding.

"Obviously, within the immigrant community, there was great concern that we were out there doing an immigration roundup," he says. "And that couldn't have been further from the truth. Having that community-relations officer, I think, can kind of tamp down the angst or anxiety in that community.

"We sat down with several of these groups ... and I told them, 'Look, these people we arrested, they're not pleasant people. ... They are (smugglers) who will rape the women, who will torture the men.

"What's frustrating to me," Crocker says, "is that I don't think we're going out here like a bunch of Nazis and indiscriminately rounding up aliens. That's not what we're doing at all."

Nowhere is the tension between perception and reality more taut than along the U.S.-Mexico line. And never has it been more tense than right now, as sociopaths battle over drug turf south of the line, and anti-immigrant demagoguery reigns in the north.

Certainly, few politicians ever got in trouble for talking tough on the border. Nor are budgets left wanting, as the federal government rains money upon the region's law-enforcement apparatus—to the extent that one could be forgiven for wondering how many tails wag this dog.

At the same time, officials such as Janet Napolitano—the former Arizona governor and current U.S. secretary of Homeland Security—argue that the border is more secure than ever before.

But that doesn't slow the money pipeline. Nor does it necessarily translate into more secure communities. Instead, quite the opposite often seems to be true. Consider the reports from public-health officials, who document that Hispanic residents in border communities suffer heightened stress levels, which can translate into hypertension, depression and cardiac arrest.

On Tucson's southside or among the winding streets of Nogales, you'll find people who pull their shades and lock the doors when they see federal ICE agents or even local police officers approach. In response, the border has become a world of shadows, in terms of people and in terms of money; even the robust finances of our border war are remarkably elusive.

Consider Operation Stonegarden. Launched in 2004 because of potential terrorist threats to the presidential election, this Homeland Security program has subsequently dispatched enormous—and growing—sums to border-area law-enforcement agencies, with the goal of enhancing cooperation with federal agencies.

In 2006, Operation Stonegarden offered a $15 million nationwide allocation. By the fall of 2009, that number had risen to $60 million. And a few months after that, another $30 million was dispatched to the border states of Texas, California, New Mexico and Arizona.

Arizona's cut, since 2006, tops $50 million. Much of that money pays for police overtime related to border-security work.

In June of this year, Arizona Attorney General Terry Goddard announced plans to distribute $50 million among law-enforcement agencies for border security. The money arose from a settlement with Western Union, the wire company accused of transferring millions in drug funds.

In August, President Obama signed a bill allocating $600 million to, among other things, hire at least 1,000 new Border Patrol agents. As of Oct. 1, the National Guard had deployed 560 guardsmen in Arizona, to support ICE and Border Patrol activities.

Dissecting all of the interagency funds arriving in Southern Arizona is a far tougher slog. Mostly, reporters are told it can't be done. There are teams from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency at work across Arizona, and cross-agency efforts such as the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area, or HIDTA, program. The U.S. Attorney for Arizona's office has added 42 new positions in the last four years, for a total of 152 assistant U.S. attorneys.

Over the past year, ICE has opened offices in Ajo and Casa Grande. The same federal budget supplements that are feeding those new outposts have also boosted already existing stations in Douglas, Nogales, Tucson, Flagstaff, Phoenix and Yuma.

In short, say critics, the border has become a cash cow for those who scream loudest.

"Border law enforcement throughout the Southwest—and particularly in Texas and Arizona—has raised the alarm about border security, says Tom Barry, director of the TransBorder Project with the Center for International Policy, based in Washington, D.C. "And they've found that the more alarmist they get, the more money they get, either from the federal government or the state. So it perverts an objective assessment of what border security and safety issues are."

In 1996, Congress passed the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunities Reconciliation Act. Among other things, this sweeping measure restricted immigrants' access to publicly funded health care. In 2004, Arizona followed with Proposition 200, which required agencies administering state and local benefits to require immigration-status verification from applicants.

Coupled with mushrooming law enforcement, these measures sent a chill across immigrant communities—and may ultimately affect us all, as people are rushed to high-cost emergency rooms, and infectious diseases go untreated.

The impact is immediate. And it shows up in the numbers, says Scott Carvajal, an associate professor in the UA College of Public Health. Carvajal was involved in a 2007 research project to gauge the well-being of residents on Tucson's southside. At least 90 percent of the 180 people in the study were Hispanic.

Researchers found stress levels exceeding those in other parts of the country. And the list of causes was long. "They included stresses related to border-enforcement practices," he says, "stresses related to access to health care, economic stresses, stresses from having to be away from family for work reasons, or feeling discriminated (against) in seeking health care or social services."

"There was a high frequency of these stresses occurring in persons of all document status. So the effects of government policies were (felt by) many citizens—many legal residents as well as undocumented persons—and playing out into very stressful community environments."

But some factors stood above the rest. "Access to health care was a huge one," Carvajal says. Then came the discomfort of "being pulled over and questioned in a way that makes you feel mistreated. That's a pretty serious stressor. And over 10 percent of the sample had experiences like that."

Nor does anxiety fester in a vacuum. "It was associated with greater depressive symptoms and poor general health outcomes," he says. "State and federal policies are having negative consequences on the health in this community."

The number of respondents who felt discriminated against exceeded the entire number of undocumented survey participants. "So we know that a large number of those who are not undocumented are still encountering these challenges," says Carvajal. "We're assuming that discrimination is associated with how they look or how they speak."

Earlier studies—one in 1993, and another in 2003—revealed similar stress levels in Hispanic communities. "And that was all before SB 1070," he says. "So this was happening even before there were further efforts to give police the green light to enforce immigration laws.

"The key tenets of SB 1070 may be caught up in court. But that doesn't mean the effects aren't played in the community. It's contributing to fear and suspicion. Now, with the reporting laws, do you not talk to your neighbor? Do you keep your head down?"

Nancy Johnson is the chief operating officer for the El Rio Community Health Center, which has for years primarily served minority clients. It remains among the most used health resources on Tucson's southside, though Johnson has noticed a shift.

"The only thing we can look at is the encounters of patients we see," she says, "and encounters are definitely down in the last year."

Johnson points to a variety of possible causes, from a lower birth rate in Pima County and the sour economy, to Arizona's immigration politics. "I think that people are probably concerned about the Border Patrol and the legislation that's been passed in Arizona," she says. But she also believes that most clients know a visit to El Rio won't make them vulnerable to law enforcement. "We have it posted that we are not a government agency in all of our clinics."

James Welden notes a similar shift in Nogales, where he's chief executive officer for the Mariposa Community Health Center. "During the summer, we had a significant drop in patient visits, particularly in pediatrics," he says. "But it would be hard to say whether that was a seasonal situation, or if it was from fear and people just not wanting to get out. It has rebounded, though, and we're doing well again."

Like Johnson, Welden is reluctant to blame politics for the fluctuation. "It may have been coincidental to the signing of SB 1070, and it may not have been," he says. "I just don't know. But we've been in this community for 30 years, and there's a high degree of trust between the community and Mariposa."

Other immigration dilemmas play out in even darker ways. It is not uncommon for men to bring undocumented women up from Mexico, and then use the threat of exposure to control them. And since many immigrant households have members of differing status—some illegal, some not—the same control can be used by husbands against wives.

Either way, power and exploitation are key elements, according to Montserrat Caballero, a rape-crisis interventionist with the Southern Arizona Center Against Sexual Assault. "This is not necessarily a new phenomenon," she says. "It's just perhaps been exacerbated by current conditions."

Those conditions include the passage and signing of SB 1070 into law. "There is absolutely more fear, and not just of being reported to the police, but in seeking services, period," she says. "Right after the bill was signed, threats of violence against women increased."

One particular incident, just after SB 1070, crystallizes that change. "This woman's husband told her, 'Now I can go kill you, and nobody will care.'" Caballero recalls. "That was directly because of the bill.

"These kinds of threats have always happened," she says. "Men say, 'I can do anything I want to you. You have no rights. Nobody cares. I'll keep the children.' And that's the No. 1 fear—separation from children. But now, the feeling among women is that they really have no protection."

Still, they do have some options. For one, they can apply for so-called "U visas" if they agree to cooperate with authorities and file a police report on their abuser. This cooperation must be certified by a law-enforcement agency.

But again, Arizona's Legislature has thrown a wrench in the process. "It's obviously very problematic with SB 1070," says Caballero, "because if I'm calling as a victim of crime, my immigration status would be questioned. I wouldn't be able to apply for a U Visa, because I would not have that certification from the police, because I was turned over to immigration authorities instead."

Only 10,000 such visas are issued nationally each year. The documents come with a work permit and allow holders to apply for permanent legal residency after three years. They were created under the Violence Against Women Act II, passed in 2000. To Caballero, the law is a recognition that our nation's family-based immigration system can encourage abuse. "The ability to emigrate somebody," she says, "is an enormous amount of leverage and power."

Immigrant women in abusive situations can also file for self-petitions if they are married to a U.S. citizen. They can also seek battered-spouse waivers.

In Pima County, most of those applications are filed through Southern Arizona Legal Aid. Last year, the office filed 27 self-petitions, 42 U-Visa petitions and seven battered-spouse waivers.

It's impossible to determine whether more local women are seeking such applications in light of SB 1070, says Valerie Hink, a Southern Arizona Legal Aid immigration attorney.

Why? Because her office is always operating at 100 percent capacity. "There are only a certain number (of cases) that we can accept per year," she says. "And the demand is always way more than we can handle."

Even so, Caballero wonders how many abused women fail to come forward. "There has been some (legal) clarity about these victims of crime," she says. "Still, that's not necessarily what's being heard in the community. The only thing sweeping through the community is fear."

Gustavo Lozano lives in Nogales, Ariz. He moved there from Tucson three years ago, to be closer to his son. A music teacher, Lozano also heads a group called Fronteras Desiguales, or Unequal Borders. He's fed up with long, grueling and sometimes abusive border crossings, where he says people are detained for no reason.

"They go through your personal belongings," he says. "You could be there 15 minutes, or you could be there an hour." And after a computer check comes up clean, officers "give you back your passport, without even an apology."

Lozano has been handcuffed at least once during that process.

He says the entire city of Nogales has changed as border enforcement has intensified. "It's a totally different picture now. There's increased militarization, more lights, more cameras, more planes."

And more federal agents. "We don't see Border Patrol as making our community safer," he says. "We see Border Patrol as someone who is going to detain us. We see National Guard troops on those hills. It is a total police state that we live in, in this community."

Gustavo Lozano and I walk up Short Street, a steep, cracked roadway alongside the border fence in Nogales, Ariz. As we reach the hilltop, two Border Patrol agents are rousting a young man from a weed-filled draw. They push him against their SUV, to begin a search.

Just another day on the line.

A different Border Patrol agent then rolls up on his bicycle to ask why I'm taking pictures. He wants to know how long we'll remain. I don't have a ready answer.

Nearby, Jazmin Olivera stands with her children in the doorway of her home. Clothing dries on the line as she describes life here, on the embattled edge of America. It is a life where people constantly careen through your yard in the darkness, where your children get sick on the fumes of pepper spray.

"Every night," she says, "we get people on the roof. We never know if it's Border Patrol or if it's migrants. But sometimes we see the Border Patrol flashlights going through our windows.

"There are screams and yelling," she says. "It scares the children. They think it is ghosts."

Back in Tucson, Border Patrol spokesman Steven Passement is unapologetic. "Unfortunately, that's just one of the aspects of living on the border," Agent Passement says. "To be honest with you, just the fact that there's the infrastructure—the fence—I guarantee you that her living there has become a lot better compared to what it was a few years back."

The neighborhood around Summit View Elementary School is among the most poverty-stricken in Pima County, a remote conglomeration of wildcat subdivisions and tattered trailer homes tucked among gaping ravines. A huge, trash-filled wash cuts along the colonia's northern flank. In big storms, this wash becomes a tempest, severing the road—and access to the outside world.

Like many impoverished communities, the Old Nogales Highway colonia is thought to contain numerous families of mixed immigration status. Not surprisingly, that makes many folks there a bit apprehensive toward law enforcement.

This is perhaps a fact that the Pima County Sheriff's Department failed to note on the afternoon of May 10, when a team of deputies were posted at Summit View to conduct school-zone enforcement. Before the operation was finished, and while the children watched, they arrested the parent of one student, and called in the Border Patrol. (See "A Community Ignored," Oct. 28.)

Jaime Farrant is an attorney and policy director for the Border Action Network. After the May operation, he sent a letter to Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. "An action such as this one," Farrant wrote, "combined with the current climate, could lead to a great erosion of the trust between community and police."

The letter, sent on July 15, also requested that a department representative meet with concerned neighbors. Four months later, there was still no reply. So BAN organized a press conference outside of Sheriff Dupnik's Benson Highway headquarters.

Farrant says the gathering began with a nasty encounter between himself and Department Bureau Chief Brad Gagnepain.

"What (Gagnepain) said when he came out—in front of all the reporters that day—was that he was wondering who made up this nonstory," says Farrant. "I told him I didn't understand what he meant by 'nonstory.' His response was, 'Well, then, you must not speak English.'

"I didn't really appreciate it," Farrant says. "We were there on behalf of a Hispanic community that is feeling targeted by law enforcement. Then he makes that comment. It didn't seem like the appropriate thing to say at that time."

Television crews were on hand as various Summit View parents aired their concerns about the department action in May. "I heard they were maybe doing speed enforcement, but I didn't see a radar gun or a speed gun, and I didn't know what they'd be doing there that day," said Angelica Zarazua, mother of one of the students. "What I ask the sheriff is that they conduct their operations more tactfully, and that they don't do it in a way that terrifies our children.

"There were many children at the school that day, crying and looking for their parents because of the way that officers carried themselves that day."

Farrant also stood before the TV news cameras. "This had the children telling their parents and teachers that they didn't want to go back to school, because the police go there and take you away," he told the crew from KOLD Channel 13.

Gagnepain smoldered on the crowd's edge, arms folded across his stiff white shirt. As one of his own officers walked up to speak, he could be heard above the crowd. "Facts are helpful; facts are good," he hollered.

Sgt. Michael Grider, the sheriff department's traffic-unit supervisor, then addressed the crowd. "What everybody is referring to as a 'bust' was a selective enforcement program," he said. "We made a total of 21 contacts during the little over an hour we were down there. Each and every contact rose out of a traffic stop or violation."

He said the arrested man had 13 suspensions on his license and a felony warrant for aggravated DUI.

Grider also described the community reaction as sharply different from the reactions to the 57 other school stakeouts his deputies had conducted. "We've been welcomed at those schools," he said. "The school people come out and talk to us. Parents thank us for being there. The kids watch what we were doing. I've had no complaints about this entire program."

The sergeant said he knew nothing about the invitations to meet with concerned residents.

Eventually, I asked Gagnepain to clarify his comments about the disputed "facts," and his other comments from the rear as Summit View parents spoke. But he declined to answer—or even give me his name, which I later obtained from an obliging deputy.

All said, the Summit View operation did not mark a high point for relations between area residents and high-ranking officials of the Pima County Sheriff's Department.

The dust has cleared from April's ICE arrests. But there is lingering, local residue.

"One of the concerns we had from that particular incident was just the presence of the police department," says Jennifer Allen, the Border Action Network's executive director. "It was our great concern about the perception of the local police officers being involved in the enforcement of ICE operations."

Unlike ICE, TPD didn't send out a community-relations person to explain what was happening, says Allen. At the same time, upset residents were barraging her office with phone calls and text messages. "Rumors were flying like crazy. Initially, it was that there were ICE raids, and that there were checkpoints.

"People were definitely afraid. They thought ICE would just shift over to the neighborhood school or Food City."

And with them would go the officers of TPD—or so rumor had it.

Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor defends his department's presence at the ICE operation. "In that circumstance, we absolutely were there to make sure that people knew this was an authentic police government operation," he says. "You're dealing with ICE and customs and so forth, which are not a normal uniformed or police-type presence. Having our patrol cars and officers there, that sends the message that this is a legitimate government operation. But we weren't involved in the planning or anything. We were brought in at the very end."

So what if neighborhood residents, battered by political rhetoric and incipient fear, don't distinguish TPD from federal agents hoping to catch and deport them or their relatives? "There is that perception," Villaseñor says. "And that's something that I'm never going be able to get people to calm down about or get over. Because we are a law-enforcement agency, we cooperate with federal agencies on a variety of functions. But we've been very adamant that we don't think immigration enforcement is our primary role or actually one of our duties.

"However, if we come across people who are illegally in the country, then we have always contacted the proper federal authorities to take over that investigation. We turn the people over to them."

And down on South Sixth Avenue, doors close and curtains are drawn as the sun sets on another day.

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