Illegal Immigration Strains Services in Arizona : LUSENET : Grassroots Information Coordination Center (GICC) : One Thread

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April 11, 2001

Illegal Immigration Strains Services in Arizona By MICHAEL JANOFSKY

PHOENIX, April 6 — Benito's small backyard has become his workshop, a dirt square filled with cars to repair and parts to fix them. As he takes an afternoon cigarette break, his wife, Carmen, tends to clothes hanging out to dry. Their barefoot 3-year-old daughter, Fernanda, wanders about.

This is their life here, a tattered two-bedroom home and a thriving business in a poor section southwest of downtown Phoenix. Inside a house across the street, a man is selling crack to walk-in customers. A few blocks away, prostitutes troll Van Buren Street.

"In 10 years, maybe Beverly Hills," Benito said wistfully, insisting that this was better than life was in Mexico before he sneaked across the border three years ago. He remains an illegal immigrant, which is why he would not give his surname.

In record numbers, people like Benito are moving to the American Southwest. Here in Maricopa County, which is larger in area than each of seven states, new census figures show that from 1990 to 2000, the Hispanic population swelled by 108 percent, a rate fueled by a rising flow of illegal immigration as well as higher-than-average birth rates and migration from other states. The county now has 3.07 million people, of whom 763,000 are Hispanic.

Officials estimate that a third of the 1.3 million Hispanics now living in Arizona, roughly 400,000 people, entered the country illegally. Five years ago, according to the Immigration and Naturalization Service, the number was just 115,000.

The new illegal workers have helped sustain the state's buoyant economy, and economists and demographers acknowledge that without them, that economy and those of many other states could not have grown so fast.

At the same time, their growing numbers — and their work in a shadow economy that earns them cash income on which they pay no taxes — have exerted pressures on county agencies. Many schools, hospitals and libraries are struggling to accommodate rising need.

"It has been a real challenge," said Luis Ibarra, president and chief executive of Friendly House, a community service agency in Phoenix. "All of a sudden agencies are not adequately staffed to deal with the demands of the population they are serving."

Of the four states bordering Mexico, Arizona had the greatest Hispanic population increase, in percentage terms, during the decade: 76.7 percent, compared with 46.1 percent for Texas, 33.4 percent for California and 23.5 percent for New Mexico.

Phoenix has become an especially strong magnet. The local economy remained particularly vibrant through the 1990's, and legal and illegal migrants alike say they were warned before arriving that Los Angeles and other larger cities had grown too expensive and the competition for jobs there too intense.

"Here," said Rubén Márquez, a legal resident from Colombia who manages a shop selling medicinal herbs, "it's easier to live, and there are greater opportunities to work."

One result has been a regeneration of whole new communities, where rusting manufacturing plants along thoroughfares like McDowell Street and Van Buren are giving way to bustling strip malls. In another measure of change, nine radio stations now broadcast in Spanish, compared with three in 1990.

Hispanics now account for two- thirds of all those attending the city's 13 public high schools, compared with 42.7 percent a decade ago. Two- thirds of the children in the county's Head Start program are Hispanic.

At city and county libraries, officials cannot keep up with the demand for materials in Spanish. Toni Garvey, the city librarian, said her annual budget for Spanish reading and listening material and for Spanish-speaking personnel had increased fivefold, to $250,000, since 1996. Still, she said, "I can't hire Spanish speakers fast enough."

The rising numbers have also strained the county health system, the safety net for uninsured and under-insured residents. Since 1997, the county hospital in Phoenix has required new employees to speak Spanish and has more than tripled, to 10, the number of translators who help doctors talk to their patients. And, said Paul Strauss, vice president for planning and development, the value of uncompensated care to illegal immigrants and other uninsured county residents has been steadily rising, reaching $49 million last year.

Francisca Montoya, executive director of Stardust House, a center that helps Hispanic families, said many of those newly arrived, fearing immigration officials, were reluctant to obtain municipal services. So, she said, doctors who volunteer at free clinics in neighborhood churches sometimes see as many as 1,500 people a day.

Several new immigrants interviewed here through a translator said their illegal status and a language barrier had left them feeling isolated and often preyed upon, though some were not reluctant to give a full name.

Pedro Marín, who works for a pool cleaning company, said he hurt his left hand when he worked for a lumber yard last year and yet was told by a doctor to whom his boss sent him that he should go back to work the next day. Mr. Marín said he agreed to work the next two weeks, using only his right hand "because I needed the job." Then, he said, he was dismissed.

"If I was an Anglo," he said, "maybe this doesn't happen."

Damián Guadalupe, a construction worker, saw the difference this way: "If I had papers, I could make $10, $12, maybe $14 an hour. I make $6 or $7, and it's always, `Hurry up, hurry up.' "

Many illegal immigrants said they were reluctant even to call 911 when they needed help. A friend of Benito said they were afraid that the police would arrive with immigration agents.

"That's why they are still selling crack over there," he said, pointing to the house across from Benito's. "Nobody around here complains."

Still the immigrants come in waves that include people like María Camacho, who was a lawyer in Mexico, and Luis Mario Moreno Gómez, who was a dentist in El Salvador. They are attending a class in English, though they know that as illegal immigrants, they will need years to have a chance for legal status.

Those without legal status have found hope in recent talks between the United States and Mexico about a guest-worker program that would allow Mexicans to register as they cross the border to fill jobs that keep the American economy churning.

But even if the talks fail and the American economy sputters, government officials and community leaders here say, the flow northward will continue, easing only when wages and living standards in Mexico and other Latin American countries improve.

"There has always been a pattern of economic migration," said Margie Emmermann, Gov. Jane Dee Hull's policy adviser for Mexico and liaison to the Hispanic community. "The only way this is going to slow down is with economic development in their home countries. Meanwhile, there is at least now dialogue at a high enough level for gradual change that would accommodate these things."

Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company

-- Martin Thompson (, April 11, 2001

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