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Ariz. Hispanics’ fear dampens Cinco de Mayo

Rumors circulate of an immigration raid at Cinco de Mayo festivities. Markets normally bustling with customers are quiet. Family picnics are scaled back.
Image: San Antonio Spurs v Phoenix Suns, Game 2
Phoenix Suns fan Jerry Rodriguez purchases a "Los Suns" jersey before the team met the San Antonio Spurs on Wednesday night in the NBA playoffs in Phoenix. Suns players were wearing the uniforms to honor the state's Hispanic community.Christian Petersen / Getty Images
/ Source: The Associated Press

Rumors circulate of an immigration raid at Cinco de Mayo festivities. Markets normally bustling with customers preparing for the celebration are quiet. Family picnics are scaled back.

Many Hispanics in Arizona — both legal and illegal — are increasingly anxious about being targeted under the state's tough anti-illegal immigration law. Some are afraid to leave their homes, even on the day when the nation celebrates Hispanic heritage.

Some have left the state, and some of those who remain wonder if they should follow.

"They don't want to go to the park or clubs to celebrate because they're scared," said George Cortez, a 24-year-old U.S. citizen from Mesa, as he took a break from sweeping hair clippings at Eagle's barbershop in a predominantly Hispanic neighborhood in this Phoenix suburb.

The law's passage unleashed a torrent of criticism against the state. Some fear the law, which requires police to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they're in the country illegally, could lead to racial profiling and have called for boycotts.

Angry debate
Arizona's law has sparked an angry national debate about illegal immigration.

Immigrant rights activists say the law is racist. Supporters deny those claims, noting that race can't be a sole reason for questioning people. They say the law is forcing the nation to confront a longstanding problem.

But some comments have unnerved Hispanics. Rep. Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., for example, said he'd support deporting U.S.-born children of illegal immigrants. He added "it takes more than walking across the border to be an American citizen."

The debate has also played out in professional sports. The Phoenix Suns basketball team plans to wear "Los Suns" jerseys in their playoff game Wednesday night, a show of support for the Hispanic community on Cinco de Mayo.

A White House Cinco de Mayo celebration erupted in applause when President Barack Obama, who has called the Arizona law "misguided," acknowledged the team's plan.

26 percent Hispanic
All of it has left some Hispanics to wonder about their place in the country.

On a day that commemorates an out-manned Mexican army's victory over larger French forces in 1862, talk in Mesa focused not on celebrations but about what will happen to the burgeoning Hispanic community here and the economy.

Hispanics compose 26 percent of the 477,000 people in Mesa, a city divided with Hispanics living predominantly on the west side and most whites living in the east. It's also home to state Sen. Russell Pearce, a sponsor of the latest law who has railed against illegal immigration.

Standing outside a restaurant, legal immigrant Gilberto Reyes, 56, of Mesa, worried that Hispanics leaving the state will mean fewer customers coming into the supermarket where he works. He said it's usually busy on Cinco de Mayo, but not this year.

"People are scared to go out and celebrate because he might start a raid," he said in Spanish, referring to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's well-publicized illegal immigration sweeps that have instilled fear in the Hispanic community.

The restaurant, Taqueria Cajeme, has already seen a drop off in the number of patrons in the days since Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law.

The owner, Francisco Meza, 41, a legal immigrant living in Mesa, said he has a good idea why: that more people are afraid to leave their homes, fearing that they will be swept up by police, and that others have already left the state.

"My fear is that all my money is invested in this restaurant," he said in Spanish.

Meza said he may have to leave Arizona, send his family back to Mexico and go to Colorado to find work.

And then he pulled out his cell phone, to show a reporter a video that he says was circulating in the Hispanic community.

A still photograph of Arpaio was accompanied by Latin music, and a Spanish speaking voice, jokingly saying the sheriff was going to raid Cinco de Mayo celebrations. Meza laughed, but behind the joke, there was fear.

Just miles away at a Phoenix news conference, actor and activist Danny Glover said that, while the law was misguided, a boycott would hurt both the targeted places and businesses as well as the people affected by the law.

While the American Bar Association said it will hold a gathering next week in Phoenix, the calls for boycotts continued.

The Rev. Al Sharpton said Arizona should not implement the law and that opponents will engage in nonviolent protests if it does. The National Council of La Raza, United Food and Commercial Workers and others scheduled a news conference in Washington Thursday to urge a boycott of the state and announce their own plans.

At the Mesa barbershop, where a "United We Stand" poster hung on the wall, Cortez finished sweeping up the clippings. He said Pearce, the state senator, will soon see that the law would destroy the economy in his hometown and in the state.

"He's going to see how big a problem he's made," Cortez said.