Adan Gallegos stands with a crowd of day laborers waiting on job offers in front of the Circle K convenience store in Chandler’s “Little Sonora” neighborhood.
On this day, there are about a dozen men alongside him near the corner store at 295 S. Arizona Ave. — which fronts the neighborhood of small apartments and mobile home parks where residents say at least 90 percent of the people are from the Mexican state of Sonora.
“The crowd waiting out here used to be bigger,” says Gallegos, 38, who has lived in the neighborhood south of downtown Chandler for about 20 years. “Not anymore.”
“I used to watch the news about SB 1070. I think it was to scare people out of town. A lot of the people I used to see, I don’t see anymore. They either moved out of state or back to Mexico.”
It’s been one year since Senate Bill 1070 was passed by the Arizona Legislature and signed by Gov. Jan Brewer. The state’s controversial illegal immigration bill — which makes it a crime for Mexican nationals to live in Arizona — sparked cheers from many, and fury from others. Debates about SB 1070 took place from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. Opponents marched. Supporters tried to strike up copycat bills in other communities. Entertainers, businesses and even community leaders in other states cried foul and called for boycotts.
Since then, legal experts on both sides have fought over the measure. But while much of the teeth of the new law is still tied up in court, the bill’s impact can be felt in communities like Little Sonora. Whether completely because of SB 1070 or the combination of Arizona’s 9 percent unemployment and scarcity of jobs, people have left.
The Centre De Trabajo — Day Labor Center — sits behind the Free Methodist Church on Arizona Avenue, across the street from the Circle K. From the church, Rev. Jose Gonzalez can see the crowd of men hoping for employment. Last year, he said, the crowd of men on the corner was about double.
“Things are slowly picking back up,” Gonzalez said. “This year has been a little better, but we still don’t see the number of people here that we used to.”
Gallegos said that’s because the economy is bad and it’s still difficult to get a job.
“There’s been a lot of changes. The neighborhood is different now,” Gallegos said. “When I go to Mexican businesses and grocery stores, there’s barely any Hispanic people anymore. They’re scared.”
A year after the bill was signed, the Hispanic community is “uncertain,” with some debating whether to stay as the school year comes to an end, said Mesa Unified School District community liaison Deanna Villanueva-Saucedo.
“The hysteria died down, but it’s been replaced by this continual uncertainty,” she said. “Mesa has great heart and community connections. To see that level of uncertainty is disheartening because it’s not what community should be about.”
When classes began last August, Mesa leaders were surprised to find that about 2,400 students did not return to their schools.
At the time, some of the blame was put on the fears felt by the community because of SB 1070.
As the district looks to next year, an even sharper decline is predicted — about 2,800 students. But there are other factors at play: foreclosures, jobs losses and pay cuts.
“We really work at making that personal contact with family. It goes beyond this issue. It’s just exasperated,” Villanueva-Saucedo said.
Businesses have felt the loss of people — and their dollars — as well.
“Since 2007, we’ve lost about 75 percent of our business,” said Nino Mihilli, 30, who works at the Mama Mia Market, his family’s business at 731 S. Arizona Ave. “These laws have added fuel to the fire and have chased businesses and people out of the state. It is killing the economy on all levels and chasing away the purchasing power of the state.
“If we did not own the property, we would’ve closed our business a long time ago,” Mihilli added. “We started losing business after the E-Verify law was passed in the summer of 2007. Then it was Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s raids. It was just blow after blow after blow.”
Mihilli’s family is Italian and moved to Arizona from Detroit about 20 years ago, seeking better jobs and more opportunities. He received a degree in business management from Arizona State University and also runs an insurance company. In the 10 years the market has been in business, it has expanded from 1,200 square feet to 6,000, Mihilli said.
“We’ve grown with Chandler and the neighborhood, and then it all came tumbling down,” he said. “Not so long ago, people couldn’t find a place to live in the neighborhood. Now, go to any trailer park or apartment complex — everything is available.”
In fact, Mihilli has written a screenplay, “The Mexican Dream,” taking what he calls a reverse approach to immigration — Americans are the immigrants and find themselves in the roles of the Mexicans, Mihilli said.
“The ethnic community is a very simple community,” he said. “The majority of all nationalities are here for a proper cause, mostly to work. This country was built on immigrants, and I don’t think that Arizona’s leadership is consistent in recognizing that.”
In west Mesa, where roadside Mexican restaurants dot Main Street, Luis Mesqueda has owned Adrian’s No. 2 Mexican Restaurant at 1011 W. Main for 15 years. He didn’t think he was going to make it past his 14th year because of looming implications from SB 1070 and customers moving out of state.
“I’ve lost more than 50 percent of my business,” Mesqueda said. “The government? Phfffft! This is worse now, and it’s not going to change, but we’re hanging in there. It can’t get any worse. We’re there now.”
The debate that SB 1070 stirred crosses cultures, political standing and residency status. Opinions about the end result of the legislation — and how many people left Arizona because of it — will likely do the same.
“People want to isolate the issue, but there are so many things tied to it,” Villanueva-Saucedo said. “It can’t be just pigeonholed to that. … So many other factors are going on in our community: the housing crunch, the economy issues. People have to go where they can find jobs.”
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