PHOENIX—It’s a warm afternoon at a trailer park in Central Phoenix as Isidro Carreras sets up chairs on his lawn. Neighbors start arriving gradually, until a group of about 30 people has gathered in a circle.
The session of the Comité de Defensa del Barrio (Neighborhood Defense Committee) is about to begin. The group is one of many that was formed with the help of the pro-immigrant organization PUENTE as a support network for immigrant families in the wake of the passage of Arizona's tough immigration law, SB 1070.
One year after Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill into law, making it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant in Arizona, immigrant networks have grown stronger. Two years ago, there were no Neighborhood Defense Committees here. Now there are about 20 of these immigrant groups in different parts of Phoenix alone.
“SB 1070 really hurt us, but also united us as one,” says Carreras, a 57-year-old undocumented immigrant from Veracruz, Mexico.
Last summer, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton blocked five provisions of SB 1070 from taking effect, a decision that was upheld by the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals last week. But the rest of the law has been implemented, including a provision that bans so-called “sanctuary cities”—cities that limit police involvement in immigration enforcement.
“They stopped part of the law, but everywhere they go on letting the police have a lot of discretion to ask who has documents or not,” says José Acosta, a U.S. citizen who is part of a Neighborhood Defense Committee in the city of Mesa.
Before the committees were formed, Carreras says, few immigrants understood their rights. When they were pulled over by the police and asked for their papers, undocumented immigrants often admitted that they were in the country illegally. Now they know they have the right to remain silent.
But what began as a way to support each other in the event of a possible police detention has taken on a life of its own. Neighbors in Carreras's group have decided to take on other issues that affect their quality of life.
“Before no one wanted to raise their voice because of their immigration status,” says Carreras. “Now we understand that together we are more powerful.”
More than 30 neighbors who own homes in the trailer park joined together two weeks ago to file a complaint with the Department of Fire, Building, and Life Safety to demand improvements to their property and to stop increases in their rent, which has climbed to $600 per lot.
“We are stuck here because no one would want to buy a trailer with such an expensive rent,” says Antonia Sánchez, a neighbor from Jalisco, Mexico.
But despite his hope that the property dispute will be resolved, Carreras admits that many immigrant families have left Arizona. A study released last year by BBVA Bancomer Research, a financial institution in Mexico, found that 100,000 Latinos had fled the state in 2010. Based on remittance information, the study estimated that about 23,000 of them were Mexican nationals who returned to Mexico from June through September 2010.
“If it weren't for the committees, many more people would have left,” Carreras says.
It isn't just immigrants who have banded together in the year since the immigration law went into effect. Business groups have noticed the cooling effect that SB 1070 has had on the local economy and have joined to oppose more anti-immigrant laws. Sixty CEOs sent a letter earlier this year urging Sen. Russell Pearce and other Republicans to reject additional tough immigration laws.
Todd Landfried, a spokesperson for Arizona Employers for Immigration Reform, a group of more than 250 businesses in the state, says companies are realizing that SB 1070 drove away consumers and taxpayers, made it harder to find labor, and gave Arizona a bad reputation as a place to do business.
"There's a general concensus that [passing anti-immigrant legislation] has been a bad strategy for Arizona," Landfried says.
A study released this past March by the Center for American Progress (CAP), a think tank in Washington, D.C., contrasts the economic effects of massive deportation with the effects of legalization of Arizona’s estimated half a million undocumented immigrants.
An enforcement-only approach could lead to a loss of 17.2 percent of total employment in the state and shrink the state's economy by $48.8 billion, according to the report. Legalizing undocumented immigrants in the state, meanwhile, could increase employment by close to 8 percent and increase state tax revenues by $1.68 billion.
As of last November, a boycott against the state had cost convention centers $141 million in cancellations, according to another CAP study.
Alfredo Gutierrez, a former Democratic state senator and editor of the bilingual online newspaperLa Frontera Times in Phoenix, says that businesses turned against SB 1070 in the wake of the boycott and the efforts by pro-immigrant groups to exert political pressure, through civl disobedience demonstrations and behind the scenes.
The pro-immigrant movement in Arizona "is maturing politically—it was being pushed to the brink,” Gutierrez says.
Despite the recent defeat of five anti-immigrant bills in the Arizona legislature, conservatives lawmakers have vowed to push for similar measures next year. One of the bills sought to reinterpret the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution to deny birthright citizenship to U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. Another bill would have required proof of legal residence when students enroll in schools.
But a number of hardline immigration laws are already in effect in the state.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is currently enforcing a human-smuggling law that makes it a crime to smuggle immigrants and charges undocumented immigrants for conspiring with their smugglers. His agency also uses state identity theft laws to raid businesses in search of undocumented workers.
Carreras, who has been living in Arizona for 12 years, says it used to be easy to find work. But today, he says, businesses are under more scrutiny, and if they are caught hiring undocumented workers they could lose their license under the state’s employer sanctions law. Carreras lost his full-time carpentry job a year ago when the company demanded that he present legal documents. Now he makes a living doing odd jobs from carpentry to yard work.
Inside his trailer, Carreras has an altar with a picture of the Virgin of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint, surrounded by flowers.
Carreras is a man of faith, and he says ultimately that's what has kept him in the state.
“I think I manage to survive because I’m stubborn about staying here in Arizona,” he says. “I made a commitment to help these people and I will.”