The lead story in Monday's New York Times was the tale of the grueling cross-country journey of some of the Central American asylum-seekers who are entering the U.S. from Mexico at the rate of more than 5,000 each day. Many take Greyhound buses on multi-segment journeys to join relatives across the U.S. One such group, the Lopez family from Guatemala, was the subject of the Times story. It was headlined "1,600 Miles, 85 Hours: A Migration by Bus".
The story included a pair of comments by one of the other travelers on part of the family's journey from Tucson to Nashville. At first, 77-year-old retired truck driver Don Shockley expressed anxiety at the intensity of the influx from Honduras, Guatemala, and El Salvador. "Sometimes it's almost like we're the foreigners," he said. "I think we got to build a wall. It won't keep them all out but it'll keep some out." "Used to be they came to California and Texas. Now they are heading east."
But then, as Shockley learned of a mother who had no money to buy food for her children, he produced a $20 bill. "Hand it to her," he said, with a tip of his cowboy hat. "I've been on the road all my life. People helped me." His anxiety hadn't disappeared, no doubt. But his humanity had asserted itself to alleviate a mother's. It was a beautiful grace note in the story by Miriam Jordan of the Times.
Over the years, I have seen many such seemingly contradictory moments in my old home state of Arizona. There the illegal immigrant population swelled from an estimated 88,000 in 1990 to 330,000 in 2000, on its way to a peak of 560,000 in 2008. Much of the public was disturbed by the massive increase. But most were careful not to show personal animosity to the unauthorized immigrants who flooded into Phoenix, where I lived throughout the 1990s.
I was a reporter for the Arizona Republic at that time. I had some mixed feelings myself.
I could see the effects in a neighborhood close to mine, a few miles from downtown Phoenix. Westwood Elementary School was trying to cope with the sudden arrival of several hundred Mexican children who spoke no English. Because I spoke Spanish, I volunteered to help. Newspaper hours – start in mid-morning and finish when the story allows – made it possible for me to assist one of the second-grade teachers for a few hours each week.
I admired the efforts of the school to meet the children's needs. But as I made my modest effort to help ease the transition for both sides, I thought it would be better for the community if the influx subsided. But, of course, it didn't. The tide of newcomers kept rising. There was steady churn as families moved from place to place in search of new opportunities. The explosion in the illegal immigrant population that was so beneficial to employers put intense strain on schools, hospitals, social service institutions, and neighborhoods. As it continued, it eroded trust in government, undermined public willingness to accept all newcomers, and bred public outrage at a situation that often seemed chaotically out of control.
Through the school, I learned about the work of a volunteer organizer in the Westwood neighborhood, a 6-foot tall, red-haired mother bear of a woman named Donna Neill. She and her husband, Jerry, organized campaigns against gangs, graffiti, and negligent landlords, and for a new park and play area for children, most of whom had recently arrived from Mexico with their parents.
By 2004, as the influx continued, the Neills were lining up against the Arizona establishment – its congressional delegation, top state officials, the mayors of its principal cities, and the leaders of its churches and chambers of commerce – by supporting a ballot initiative that targeted illegal immigration. It was called Proposition 200. Like California's Proposition 187 in 1994, it was an attempt to deny public services to unauthorized immigrants.
"We're sending a message that it's time to pay attention to what this is doing to us," said Donna Neill, then 58. She recited a list of problems in Phoenix that she tied to the influx of poor, unskilled immigrants: overcrowded schools; houses, and apartment buildings where two or three families crammed into a space meant for one; garages converted to two-family apartments; home additions hastily improvised in violation of housing codes that went unenforced by an overwhelmed city bureaucracy; and a general feeling of disorder and instability.
I wrote a story at the time about Donna Neill (who died several years ago). "We've got more problems than we can handle," she said. "There needs to be some rules. What we've got now is just chaos. We're losing the simple things that make a society a society, but no one wants to step forward because they're afraid of crossing some line and being called a racist."
Proposition 200 passed with an overwhelming margin despite the well-funded campaign against it. And even though Mexican-American leaders denounced it as racist, exit polls showed that 47 percent of Latino voters had supported it. They, too, clearly thought that immigration had gotten out of hand. "It's an issue of competition," University of Arizona political science professor John Garcia told me. "People think they're driving down wages and taking jobs. It's an emotional issue."
With numbers like those flowing across the border, how could it not be an emotional issue? If the current influx continues, the emotion is certain to rise and become a major factor in the 2020 election.