The past few years haven’t been the best for a man trying to make an honest living selling tortillas in Arizona. Business owner Sergio Paez estimates that he has lost 20 businesses as customers in the past three years, from small neighborhood taquerias to chain restaurants.
In 2010, his tortilla business was suffering thanks to the nationwide recession. Then Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law the state's controversial immigration enforcement policy known as SB 1070, and things got even worse, he said.
“The law affected the immigrant population dramatically,” said Paez, a naturalized citizen from Mexico whose Phoenix-area factory produces about 200 dozen tortillas an hour.
“The economy had already been going down with the housing crisis - construction stopped, people were losing homes, jobs, cars. That triggered the recession, but I think this law aggravated it here.”
With oral arguments before the U.S. Supreme Court set for Wednesday in the Obama administration’s constitutional challenge to the law, the outcome will have far-reaching implications for Arizona and other states that have implemented similar policies since 2010.
But critics of Arizona’s law believe the damage has been done. Aside from its economic impact, they say, the law has torn apart families, divided communities and sown distrust of law enforcement. Moreover, there’s a fair share of fatigue over the subject, with some saying the battle over 1070 has distracted attention from far more serious issues facing the state.
Not everyone perceives the effects as negative. If undocumented immigrants are leaving the state in fear, then the law is working, said Phoenix resident Ana Gaines. She also said crime rates are down, citing county attorney statistics that CNN was unable to immediately verify.
The broader impact of the law resides in the message it sends by its very nature, said Gaines, who has become the public face of the law's supporters.
“I love this country and there’s nowhere else I’d rather be. But I would never want to be here illegally,” said Gaines, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico. “This law tells people that Arizona does not welcome illegals, plain and simple. You can come at your own risk or go somewhere else.”
Exact numbers of people who have left the state because of the law are hard to come by, but both camps know it’s happening. By now, it’s a familiar narrative: Fearing persecution by law enforcement, many Hispanics, both legal and undocumented, stayed in their homes. Businesses, especially those that catered primarily to the Hispanic community, took a hit. People fled the state - some to prevent their families from being torn apart, others in search of work.
Mario, 20, is an undocumented immigrant whose parents brought him to Arizona from Mexico when he was 2. Shortly before SB 1070 took effect in July 2010, his parents sold most of their possessions, packed his two younger siblings into their Chevy Tahoe and moved to Texas. Also undocumented, they were afraid of being arrested and deported. Mario insisted on staying, refusing to run from the place he considered home.
“If it happens in Arizona, who says it won’t happen in Texas? If you run away from one state then maybe another state will catch on to that. If all 50 of them get together, maybe they’ll run us out of the country,” he said. “Leaving the country would be leaving my home and I believe that I am an American.”
Times have been tough since his family left, Mario said. Without enough money to support himself, he bounces around the homes of friends, dividing his time between work and school, which he pays for in full because he can’t apply for financial aid.
But he’s lonely without his family and he wonders if he did the right thing by peeling away from them.
“I hope they don’t have a grudge against me, because sometimes I feel like I didn’t stick with them when they were in fear. I looked out for my own personal gain and not what’s better for the family on the whole,” he said. “I hope they understand that I’m standing for what I believe in, my right to stay in my home.”
The law’s critics will tell you they’re not “pro-illegal immigration” or “anti-American.” Many support secure borders along with pathways to legal citizenship for those who deserve it and policy reform based on free-market principles.
Yet any discussion of “common-sense, comprehensive” solutions on the federal or state level seems to have been relegated to the back burner while 1070 is front and center, said Arizona blogger Julie Erfle.
Its prominence in the news cycle has ebbed and flowed in the past year, she said, with the recall election of Sen. Russell Pearce, the law’s main sponsor, and a federal investigation into Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose reputation for impromptu raids and rough handling of inmates made him the focus of a Department of Justice probe.
“It’s not just 1070 but the DOJ investigation of Arpaio, the recall election, all these things have really led to this divisive attitude and wall of distrust between the Latino community and law enforcement,” she said. “The actual law hasn’t changed much because it was enjoined but the effects of the law are more psychological. It has served to divide the community and stifle debate on other important issues.”
Cuts to education and chronic unemployment are some of the issues on the minds of most Arizonans, she said.
“Definitely, the people who are fighting against 1070 see it as stain on Arizona’s reputation. But by and large, the people in Arizona are tired of it dominating every discussion. They want to talk about other problems and solutions."
Erfle’s journey to Washington to hear arguments in the gallery Wednesday began with the shooting death of her husband, a Phoenix police officer and cancer survivor who was killed by an undocumented immigrant. Her search for information generated months of discussion with law enforcement, immigration attorneys and faith leaders and led her to believe that the roots of the problem required something more than an enforcement-only approach.
“Immigration reform is incredibly important to me and to be here for what’s definitely a history-making event was a difficult opportunity to pass over,” she said.
At this point, Paez is not sure how the Supreme Court case will affect him, regardless of its outcome. He’s too focused on the daily goals of attracting more clients and diversifying operations with new products, like fried taco shells and tostadas. Slowly but surely, he’s generating positive momentum, he said.
Still, if the law is upheld in its entirety, then the labor force will surely shrink, and there won’t be enough citizens to take all the low-paying jobs in restaurants and agriculture, he surmised. If the Supreme Court strikes it down, politicians will surely fight to resurrect it, thus continuing the cycle of angry rhetoric and protests, none of which helps draw investors from outside the state.
“It takes time to build confidence again for people to invest here,” he said, “I don't know how many people are willing to invest in this type of economy, especially in Arizona, where so many people have left and they’re worried about hiring people with no documents.
“Of course, they need to stop illegal immigration. How they’re going to do that, I don’t think anybody has the answer for that yet.”