ILLEGAL from Terry Greene Sterling

Read a penetrating chapter from former Phoenix New Times investigative reporter Terry Greene Sterling's book: ILLEGAL: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone.

The scene bothered me so much I looked up the man’s court records. He was indeed a registered sex offender, and had served time in prison for molesting his nine-year-old stepdaughter. He was categorized in the sex offender registry as a category three offender, which meant he was very likely to reoffend.

He admitted on more than one occasion that he was a crack addict, according to his files in Maricopa County Superior Court. He was the father of two kids himself, and had signed them over to his mother and father, whom he lived with. He served time in an Arizona prison for robbing an old man at knifepoint. Another time, he was incarcerated for auto theft.

So, what was this self-admitted drug addict and child molester doing buying treats for a little girl in the dollar store? I asked Inocencio why he didn’t bring the matter to the attention of the police.

Details

What he said speaks volumes about the consequences of law-enforcement officers, like Sheriff Joe, doubling as immigration enforcers. Inocencio had lost faith in the police.

Araceli had no papers. What if he went to the police and they deported his wife?

Inocencio made the mistake of calling police back when another Anglo guy had robbed him at knifepoint.

As a result, Araceli had been subpoenaed to testify for the prosecution at the upcoming trial. She didn’t want to testify, because she thought she might be apprehended when she went to the courthouse.

In the undocumented underground, all police and law enforcement agencies had been lumped in with Sheriff Joe.

Distrust that began with Sheriff Joe’s raids was re-enforced by media reports detailing how law-enforcement officials had double crossed immigrants. The Los Angeles Times, for instance, reported in 2010 that some ICE agents reneged on promises of legal status to undocumented immigrants who had acted as valuable informants.

As far as Inocencio and Araceli were concerned, it was better to stay under the radar.

Competition for customers was fierce and unrelenting.

As many immigrants in Phoenix lost their jobs to the recession or to ramifications from the Employer Sanctions Act, unemployed immigrants took to selling whatever they could to other immigrants. Yard sales became more prevalent and frequent. Paloteros, those energetic Mexican vendors who sold icy treats from their handcarts, fanned out after school and sold ice cream late into the night. Spanish speakers with driver’s licenses ran informal taxi and shuttle services for those who feared driving. Peddlers took orders for everything from vegetables to tee shirts and made home deliveries. Corn vendors set up impromptu storefronts in vacant parking lots.

Just down the street from Inocencio and Araceli’s dollar store, a sixty-something-year-old former construction worker we’ll call Samuel parked his old truck in an empty lot every day and sold fresh corn, roasted peanuts, and citrus from the back of his pickup. Samuel told me he netted from $5 to $140 daily, depending on blind luck. His wife raised chickens (she bought the chicken feed at Costco) and sold eggs door-to-door.

I asked Samuel why a customer would buy corn from him or eggs from his wife instead of purchasing the same food at the grocery store, and he said: “We let them sample it.”

He and his wife had total monthly expenses, including rent, of about $2,000. Their kids, who were grown, helped them with expenses if the egg sales and corn vending didn’t pay the bills.

They were undocumented, and got by, he told me, just hoping Obama would make good on his promise and bring about that elusive immigration reform.

Samuel hoped to return to construction work when the recession ended. He wouldn’t go back to Mexico, not if he could help it, even if he could only make ends meet by standing around all day in an empty parking lot waiting for other immigrants to buy corn and peanuts from the back of his truck.

“My whole life is here in Phoenix,” he said.

Samuel’s sentiment was the sentiment of many migrant vendors at Los Perros, which means The Dogs. Los Perros is a large Phoenix swap meet that resembles an open-air market in a big city in southern Mexico. Spanish speakers call the place Los Perros because the complex of storage sheds and shaded stalls sits on the parking lot of a shuttered dog racing park in southeast Phoenix. The Anglos have another name for it: Park N Swap. It’s been around for at least thirty years.

Park N Swap had once been entirely Anglo, but on the day in 2010 that I visited, the crowd was predominantly Latino. A few Anglo holdouts (mostly middle-aged men with straggly goatees and tattoos) still manned booths stocked with knives and martial arts paraphernalia. One Anglo woman sold rocks and gems and tie-died tee shirts. Mostly, though, Spanish speakers sold other Spanish speakers a variety of goods, including brand new rakes, tamale steamers, overalls, gloves, sheets, towels, Malverde (the drug saint) dashboard ornaments, St. Jude medals, used cars, shoes, candles, CD’s, saddles, parakeets, blankets, Chihuahua puppies, mangoes, caramels, cucumbers, plastic jewelry made in China, toilet paper. People cued up to get their computers fixed at various computer booths, and others bought curative herb formulas for colds and coughs from herbalists.

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