Immigrants feel unsafe in Flagstaff

Flagstaff, AZ – In late November Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials arrested 80 people in the span of three days. The arrests took place in northern Arizona and many in Flagstaff. Up until recently Flagstaff was considered by many undocumented people to be a sort of safe haven, where immigration laws weren't strictly enforced. But as Arizona Public Radio's Laurel Morales reports that perception is changing.

Jose Garcia came to the United States with his wife and infant daughter 13 years ago. Garcia is from Ciudad Juarez, the Mexican city notorious for its drug war.

GARCIA: Yo tengo quatro hijas. Yo no quiero que I have four daughters and I don't want to raise my daughters in that kind of environment. So that's why I'm here. I wanted to give them a better life.

Garcia, which isn't his real name, isn't feeling so safe now. He knows several people who were recently arrested and deported. Even his four year old daughter is worried.

GARCIA: No tenemos there was one night during the raids we didn't have anything for dinner my four year old asked me dad where are you going don't go because the migra immigration is out and they might get you and I said no we need to eat so I need to go get food she replied dad, there's some cereal there we can eat cereal just don't go mira no te preocupes podemos comer cereal no salgas porque tengo miedo la migra.

Jeronimo Vasquez translates for Jose. He works at Killip Elementary School, where at least 10 families were directly affected by the arrests.

VASQUEZ: I had children calling me on my cell phone crying saying they're going to take my family members. That's hard to listen to when you have a fourth grader crying saying they're going to take my mommy. I had first graders coming up telling me don't answer your door at night because somebody could snatch you.

The school's principal Joe Gutierrez says since the arrests he's seen enrollment drop. He feels empathy for the families but as an educator his role is to inform people about the law. He uses this analogy:

GUTIERREZ: If I am out driving and I'm speeding I get a speeding ticket and I fail to respond to that ticket that is my fault and my responsibility.

Gutierrez says just as it's the responsibility of the families who have been here without documents for 10-20 years to go through the steps of becoming citizens. Up until recently there's been an unwritten policy in Flagstaff. Local law enforcement officials have been unwilling to use their manpower to enforce federal immigration laws. And Gutierrez says so many people took advantage of that and have grown accustomed to it.

GUTIERREZ: In a sense it's gotten out of hand. It's kind of like a wildfire. Now that people are wanting it to be enforced its very difficult because it hasn't been enforced in so long.

But Arizona ICE spokesman Vincent Picard says a law's a law.

PICARD: ICE enforces immigration laws nationwide. While certain communities set their own policies we enforce immigration laws regardless of their policies or what their stance on working with ICE might be.

AND Picard says parenthood doesn't excuse you from following the law.

PICARD: Responsibility for the consequences for breaking the law really lies on the people who broke the law. Just as if we arrested someone for narcotics or drinking and driving the consequences that fall on their family while unfortunate lie with those who broke the law in the first place.

SFX: music

Diego Sanchez, who didn't want to use his real name, knows he broke the law when he came to the United States three years ago from Mexico. Sanchez sits in his dimly lit living room tuning his guitar.

SANCHEZ: No soy muy bien cantante pero me gusta tocar.

He says he's not a very good singer but he likes to play. He plays in a mariachi band. When he's not performing he works long hours as a house painter.

SANCHEZ: Yo vine porque quiero para el un mejor futuro

He sends money back to his teenage son every month. He says he wants him to have a better life. But after the recent arrests he's afraid to go to work.

SANCHEZ: I had to go to work because I have to pay rent, lights, water, phone. (translated)

But he has to go to pay the bills. Since the recent arrests he's thought about leaving Flagstaff and moving to Texas or California where his friends have had fewer problems with immigration. But it's not a good time to find a job.

For Arizona Public Radio I'm Laurel Morales in Flagstaff.