CHANDLER, Ariz. – Christine Vollmecke has one thing to say to people calling Arizona racist for passing the toughest law against illegal immigration in the nation: You don’t know what we’re going through.
There are constant reports on television of criminals smuggling migrants. On April 30, a sheriff’s deputy patrolling the desert was wounded in a shootout with suspected drug traffickers. Vollmecke says she is too scared to visit the southern part of the state anymore.
“I don’t think I’m racist. I don’t think the vast majority of us are racist,” the 57-year-old Realtor said. “I just want to feel safe in my own state.”
Arizona’s law, signed by Gov. Jan Brewer last month, makes it a state crime to lack immigration papers and requires police to determine whether people are in the country legally. It’s sparked national calls for boycotts, protest marches across the country and biting cartoons that compare the state to Nazi Germany.
Chandler is the sort of comfortable, conservative suburb that politicians point to when they claim broad local support for the law – 70 percent of likely voters backed it in one statewide poll. Even here, though, there’s a wide range of opinions on the merits of the law.
Chandler is a prototypical Phoenix suburb: stucco subdivisions, golf courses, shopping centers and lots of palm and palo verde trees. Residents say it’s more than just crime that causes them to be unhappy about illegal immigrants.
Jessica Lonkard, 30, noted that developers are trying to sell new condominiums in the town’s faded downtown. “They have 50 day laborers on every street corner every day,” she said. “How are they going to sell those?”
Her husband, Nick, added that the law may be “a little drastic” but it could allow authorities to go round up day laborers at, say, the local Home Depot without bothering Latinos who are citizens.
“I don’t like racial profiling,” he said, then paused. “I guess I do.” He concluded: “Something’s got to be done.”
David Padilla used those exact same words to describe his thoughts on the immigration mess. But the 47-year-old garbage collector and U.S. citizen fears police will now be focused on Latinos like himself.
“I don’t want to have to carry around my passport,” he said. “(But) something’s got to be done; you can’t have people just running back and forth across the border.”
Arizona became the most popular illegal crossing point in the nation in the late 1990s, after increased security on the California border drove migrants east. Crime has steadily dropped here despite that influx, but the same routes used by illegal immigrants looking for work are also used by drug smugglers.
Stephanie De La Ossa grew up near the border in southern Arizona, and remembers how eerie it was to have strangers running through the yard, speaking another language.
“A lot of people haven’t lived in this state,” she said of the critics. “They’re making it into a race issue, but for the normal, law-abiding citizen it’s not.”