Why Arizona Isn't Crazy, Only Wrong

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The first time I drove out of Phoenix I was stunned by two things: the oppressive heat, and how quickly the city ended and the desert, with its saguaro cacti and brambly creosote, began. It’s been more than 20 years since my parents first moved to Arizona, and that desert highway is now flanked by a ribbon of shopping malls and housing developments. A few years ago I would have told you those beige subdivisions with their manicured rock gardens were a safe and friendly place to raise kids. Ask me now and I’d say: think twice.

Arizona has outraged the nation with a new immigration law that obligates authorities to check the documents of anyone they believe is in the country illegally, based on a “reasonable suspicion” during a “lawful” stop. Some accuse lawmakers and the 70 percent of Arizonans who support the bill of acting like Nazis, or of turning Arizona into an apartheid state. But spend some time in Arizona, and you may come to see why so many Arizonans want this.

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It’s terrifying to live next door to homes filled with human traffickers, drug smugglers, AK-47s, pit bulls, and desperate laborers stuffed 30 to a room, shoes removed to hinder escape. During a month’s reporting with police and other law-enforcement agents in Arizona last year, I met many scared people. One man who lived next to a “drop house” for Mexican workers slept with two guns under his bed, his children not allowed to play in the backyard. The sound of gunshots was not uncommon. “Four years ago this neighborhood was poodles and old ladies,” he said, too frightened to give his name. “Now it’s absolutely insane.” That morning, authorities had raided the drop house. When the neighbor told me how his kids had been evacuated behind riot shields, he began to cry. Others, too, were unhappy: the undocumented workers taken from the house were exhausted, sweaty, and dead quiet as they sat on a curb with their hands cuffed, waiting to be taken away.

Within 24 hours I witnessed another bust, this one prompted by a tip from Tennessee authorities. They reported a threat to kill a kidnap victim, and a ransom demand for $3,500. Sheriff’s deputies went to a pleasant house with a two-car garage. Inside, they found dozens of immigrants crammed into unfurnished bedrooms, the windows boarded from the inside, shoes and belts piled up in the closet. The search also turned up a Taser-like device, a sawed-off shotgun, and two pistols. Another day, I watched the Phoenix police break up a “stash house” filled with guns and hundreds of pounds of marijuana. An hour later they raided a McMansion adorned with hunting trophies and Scarface posters; a white SUV jammed with 300 pounds of marijuana was parked out front. (Sixty percent of all the marijuana that reaches the U.S. transits Arizona.) Again, the house was in a high-end development, nowhere near the border.

None of this means the new law is a good idea. In addition to Arizona, I’ve also lived in Russia, which requires its citizens to carry documents at all times. Police usually carry out spot checks on darker-skinned people from the Caucasus or the “stans”—people who often go to Russia as illegal migrant workers. These workers are also the targets of racially motivated attacks and killings. Average Russians don’t bat an eye.

We don’t want to head in that direction. The overwhelming majority of Mexicans who come here are not criminals. Most are just desperate for honest work. But clearly something needs to be done about the traffickers who bring them to the U.S. Last year the U.S. marshal for Arizona, David Gonzales, told me he had some 200 active warrants for Mexicans in and around Phoenix engaged in organized crime. Last week he told me he had 324, and even more in Tucson. So what’s the solution? Gonzales favors an approach backed by many other law-enforcement and immigration specialists: the federal government, he says, must step in to make the border more secure and to amend the system so more Mexicans can enter the country legally—without the “help” of criminal cartels.