ILLEGAL from Terry Greene Sterling

Read a penetrating chapter from former Phoenix New Times investigative reporter Terry Greene Sterling's book: ILLEGAL: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone.

Once, a Spanish-speaking immigrant pointed a pistol at his chest and stole $160. The thief was never caught.

Another time, when Inocencio’s kids and wife were in the store, an Anglo held a knife to Inocencio’s side and robbed them of $100.

Burglars had robbed the dollar store at night, breaking in through the air conditioning vent and stealing more than $300 worth of phone cards and Marlboros. They were never caught.

Inocencio insured the store against theft and vandalism and considered addicts part of the cost of doing business. He thanked God in heaven that the majority of his customers were not addicts, but immigrant families, oldsters, working people, and students. Inocencio and Araceli had chosen the location of their shop on this busy street because the duplexes and rental houses and apartment buildings in the neighborhoods behind the store were home to their customer base—Mexican immigrants.

Which is precisely why I’d sought out Inocencio and Araceli, as well as others you’ll soon meet. I hadn’t been able to ferret out any study on undocumented immigrants as retail consumers in either Phoenix or Arizona. Back in 2007, a University of Arizona study indicated that all immigrants, authorized and unauthorized, paid $3 in taxes for every $2 that the state spent on services for them. Those taxes immigrants paid included retail taxes, and that intrigued me.

Three years later, I hoped to find out on a purely anecdotal level what goods unauthorized Mexican immigrants purchased in the midst of a recession, the raids, and laws that made it difficult to find work, much less drive to the store. Did they buy Mexican products or American products? What shopping environments were comfortable for them? As consumers, how did they contribute, on a daily basis, to the recession-buttressed economy of a state that wants to shut them out?

If some immigrants had left Phoenix because it was just too unpleasant to live there and because there were no jobs, how did their exodus affect shopkeepers like Inocencio?

I chose the dollar store because it is typical of Phoenix stores that cater to first generation immigrants. Inocencio fused American products with Mexican marketing. Newly arrived immigrants were comfortable shopping at the dollar store; it was as familiar to them as the corner stores back home, tiny places that sold a little bit of everything. Just like in Mexico, customers could walk to the dollar store from their homes. Inocencio helped them understand the American products, and ordered what they needed.

If all the indocumentados were to leave Phoenix, Inocencio once told me, “I wouldn’t have any business.”

Like almost every immigrant I met who entered the United States illegally, Inocencio needed very little coaxing to tell his crossing-the-border story. It bears repeating that most of the undocumented Mexican immigrants in Phoenix, like Inocencio, entered the country without legitimate visas. They were too poor and often lived too far away from government offices to try to get tourist visas to enter the United States (temporarily) legally.

It was more practical for these immigrants to hire a smuggler and take their chances.

When they told their border-crossing tales to me, they wanted it understood that they’d struggled just to get to Phoenix. I sensed an unspoken subtext to these stories—after learning about what they’d endured to get here, surely Americans would understand that they wanted and deserved to be here.

Inocencio’s story was a little different. Compared to others, he hadn’t suffered. Plus, he had been lucky enough to be in the United States at the very time the Reagan-era government offered amnesty to undocumented immigrants. Inocencio became a legal permanent resident, thanks to the Republicans. He was seventeen years old in 1984, the year he decided to travel from his village in Guerrero to the United States of America. By then, so many young men in the village had trekked north to work in the United States that Going North was viewed as a career option.

Young boys might ask each other: What will you do when you become a man?

Well, one might answer, I’ve thought of becoming a mechanic, like my dad, or I might Go North like my uncle and three cousins.

When Inocencio told his mother he wanted to Go North, she opposed him. Her older son had already made the trip, and had settled in Los Angeles, but Inocencio was too young, she believed. She knew Inocencio wouldn’t listen to her. He’d always been hardheaded. She would never forgive him for dropping out of school after completing the seventh grade, even though she had begged him to continue with his studies, to make something of himself for heaven’s sake.

“I don’t like school,” he would tell her, smiling.

He was stubborn, that boy.

After he quit school, Inocencio helped his father for several years in the two family businesses—a butcher shop and a mill where townspeople ground their fresh corn. He first met his future wife Araceli at the mill, when she brought corn to be ground. Her family raised livestock—goats and cattle and chickens. He didn’t think much of Araceli either way. She was skinny, plain, serious, and kept to herself. She was one of the smart kids in town, one of the bookworms who dreamed of doing something important with her life. She was a scholar. He was not. He knew the difference.

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