Longform

ILLEGAL From Terry Greene Sterling

Page 6 of 10

Then, in late 2008, business began to decline. The Employer Sanctions Act had taken effect. Sheriff Joe stepped up his raids of Latino neighborhoods and work places. The recession ate away at the construction and hospitality industries that employed so many undocumented Mexican immigrants in Phoenix.

Vacancy signs began to sprout up in immigrant neighborhoods. We’ll never know how many undocumented immigrants left Phoenix, because we’ll never know how many were here, exactly, in the first place. What we can surmise, though, is that many lived in Maricopa County, the most populous county in Arizona.

The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Immigration Statistics estimated in 2010 that 100,000 undocumented immigrants left Arizona in one year—from 2008 to 2009. According to the federal agency, about 560,000 undocumented people were thought to live in Arizona in 2008. By 2009, only about 460,000 were thought to remain. That’s a 20 percent drop in number of undocumented immigrants in Arizona.

Inocencio and Araceli guessed that 30 percent of undocumented immigrants left the Phoenix metro area. Sales at the dollar store dropped by 50 percent.

When I first met them, in late 2009, Inocencio and Araceli were considering closing down the store altogether. They decided that before they gave up they’d change the name of their store, which they’d previously called a gift shop, to a “dollar and more” store. The name change worked. More immigrants started wandering in the store, looking for deals.

Even so, a lot of the inventory they’d already purchased was not moving. Inocencio and Araceli climbed on ladders and rearranged the hard-to-sell merchandise – the ceramic salt-and-pepper-shakers and small appliances and such – stacking it on the highest shelves. Customers had no money for such luxuries, and some said there was no point buying nice stuff, since they could be picked up the Sheriff Joe any day.

Inocencio’s American suppliers felt the pinch, too. Few immigrants wanted to buy American party goods, for instance.

No one bought the paper birthday plates with matching tablecloths and napkins. No one bought gift cards or ribbons or wrapping paper. Inocencio and Araceli moved those goods into the back stockroom, leaving just a few out for view. They replaced several shelves that had contained party goods, linens, and tchotskies with food, like cans of hominy, dry pastas, pancake mixes and other groceries they bought at Sam’s Club and Costco. After all, people still had to eat.

They still stocked the store with a few new “luxury” items that women requested—inexpensive American hair dye, mascara, eyeliner, lipstick. Women also still bought cheap plastic earrings and bracelets and hair clips made in China. Shoplifting was on the upswing, and Araceli had posted signs (black marker, white paper and no-nonsense Spanish) that said shoplifters would be turned into the police.

The signs were meant to terrify customers into behaving. It was unlikely that Araceli actually would call police. But practically every undocumented immigrant with sticky fingers knew that a shopowner’s calling the police was tantamount to calling La Migra, because if you got arrested for shoplifting, you went to Sheriff Joe’s jail, and if you went to Sheriff Joe’s jail, the deputies had an agreement with ICE that allowed them to check your immigration status.

On the days I visited the store, this is what Spanish-speaking immigrants bought: Marlboros, Monster drinks, Pepsis, Coca-Cola, cheap plastic toys made in China (cowboys, Indians, farm animals, blonde dolls, guns) Cheetos, Doritos, milk, eggs, Clamato, Clorox, Funyons, Gatorade, Capri Sun, bicycle locks, pencils, notebook paper, pliers, socks, soap, lighters, and the Love Rose tube.

Araceli wrote out lists of products that had been sold and needed to be replaced. She wrote a different list for each warehouse Inocencio purchased from. On the first day I visited, one list read:

12 scissors

14 razors

22 boxes aluminum foil

30 trinkets or toys made in China

12 bicycle locks

5 bags clothespins

Inocencio and Araceli marked most goods up 30 to 50 percent. Love Rose tubes, marked up 75 percent, were an exception to the rule.

They needed to clear about $36,000 a year to meet their living expenses. Rent and utilities for the store cost about $13,500 annually. By my calculations, if they marked up merchandise 30 percent, they had to gross about $350 a day to cover both the store expenses and their living expenses. The week I visited, they grossed from $220 to $300 a day.

Their customers paid 8.6 percent sales tax on non-food items, which Inocencio, in turn, paid to the state and Maricopa County, which ironically funded Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s agency. (Inocencio was no fan of Sheriff Joe; he’d once joined a march to protest the sheriff’s treatment of immigrants but the heat had made him queasy.)

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Terry Greene Sterling