New Arizona law forcing hard choices on migrants

PHOENIX Mon Apr 26, 2010 5:58pm EDT

A Guatemalan illegal immigrant prepares to board a plane at a flight operations unit at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport during his deportation process in Mesa, Arizona July 10, 2009. REUTERS/Carlos Barria

A Guatemalan illegal immigrant prepares to board a plane at a flight operations unit at the Phoenix-Mesa Gateway airport during his deportation process in Mesa, Arizona July 10, 2009.

Credit: Reuters/Carlos Barria

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PHOENIX (Reuters) - With Arizona's crackdown on illegal immigrants looming, Guatemalan Samuel Roldan is swapping the family's battered Chevy Suburban, which he feels marks them out as low-income migrants, for a smarter, more corporate-looking Nissan.

"When you have an old car (covered) with stickers for a Spanish-language radio station ... it's only logical that they will think you are Hispanic and you don't have papers," Roldan said.

Roldan is among an estimated 460,000 illegal immigrants in the Mexico border state carefully weighing their options on Monday, three days after Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed the United States' toughest immigration measure into law.

Slated to take effect 90 days after the current legislative session adjourns, the measure backed by Republicans in the state legislature requires state and local police to determine if people are in the country illegally. Critics of the law say it is a mandate for racial profiling.

The law, which also makes it a crime to transport illegal immigrants and to hire day laborers off the street, has sent a jolt through the undocumented workforce in the state, the principal corridor for illegal migrants entering from Mexico.

Some like Roldan, 34, who has a steady job as a warehouse worker and three U.S.-born daughters in Phoenix schools, plan to stay put, lower their profile and wait to see how the law will affect them.

Others, like Mexican day laborer Jesus Aguilar, 52, say the measure leaves them few options but to leave Arizona and try their luck elsewhere.

"Since the law says that people hiring undocumented day laborers will get fined, no-one wants to (hire) us," said Aguilar, who early on Monday was among some two dozen migrants touting for landscaping and building work at a day labor site in north Phoenix.

"We are thinking of going to Utah or New Mexico ... Here it is just too racist," he added.

'CREATE HAVOC'

The law has raised fears that Hispanics will be racially profiled and police will actively hunt down illegal immigrants, who are estimated to number about 10.8 million in the nation and are the backbone of the shadow economy.

It is also expected to spark a legal challenge and has become a hot issue in the run-up to the mid-term congressional elections in November, when Democrats will defend their majorities in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.

The new Arizona state law seeks to "discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity" in the desert state, and Hispanic activists say it is already having a marked impact.

"What is a father to do if, in 90 days, they can be stopped by any police officer and questioned ... when their family is at home and their kids in school?" said Elias Bermudez, the founder of Phoenix nonprofit Immigrants Without Borders.

"That's going to create havoc, so a lot of them are saying, 'Look, before they pick me up, I'd rather leave the state of Arizona either to another state or back home,'" he added.

Migrants who spoke to Reuters on Monday said they would bide their time and see how the law is implemented in the next weeks and months before making their moves.

During that time, Roldan said he and his wife Gladys would stay home as much as possible, to further minimize their exposure to police, and would decide later whether to move to another state.

"We have already got some boxes ready ... so we are prepared," he added.

For Mexican day laborer Rodolfo Espinoza, meanwhile, it was simply time to go back home to work as a fisherman on the Pacific coast of northwest Mexico, where he has a wife and four children.

"This new law gives us no other option than to leave ... I'm going back to Mexico, where I feel more comfortable," he added.

(Editing by Mary Milliken and Eric Walsh)

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