PHOENIX — Normally, when I write from the road, I'm careful not to forget my pens, notepads and laptop. But this time, as a Mexican- American heading to Arizona, I made sure I also had my passport.
Just in case. Even though U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton got it right last week when she issued a temporary injunction against the most egregious parts of the state's tough immigration law, what was left of the legislation went into effect. The state is appealing Bolton's ruling, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals isn't scheduled to hear the case until November.
I needed a closer look, and so I've come back to this city — where I lived for two years in the late 1990s — to find out what became of the racial-ethnic comity that once seemed as much a part of Arizona as cactus, turquoise and kachina dolls.
With polls showing about 70 percent of white Arizonans supportive of the law and about the same percentage of Latino Arizonans opposed, the comity is gone.
Not long ago, people here got along for the most part. Latinos, Anglos, African-Americans, Asians, American Indians and others didn't just peacefully co-exist. They celebrated their differences. More than a melting pot, Arizona was like a pozole, a Mexican stew with many ingredients that compliment one another.
It was the nourishment I craved after living in Los Angeles, where in 1994 I witnessed the contentious debate over California's Proposition 187. The ballot initiative denied education, welfare, and health care to illegal immigrants and their children. The measure was approved by voters but struck down by a federal judge, who was concerned the state was encroaching on federal authority to enforce immigration law.
Sound familiar? How it energized Republican voters in the short term prompted President Bill Clinton to show he was just as tough on illegal immigration as the GOP. In October 1994, just before Californians went to the polls, Clinton launched Operation Gatekeeper to beef up enforcement on the U.S.-Mexico border south of San Diego.
As a result, hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants took a detour through Arizona.
Many Arizonans will tell you this is when the "invasion" began. To be honest, it was more like a massive job fair where Arizonans eagerly hired illegal immigrants to do everything from cleaning houses to building them, from tending gardens to tending children, from working in the fields to working in restaurant kitchens.
Phoenix boomed, and many Phoenicians envisioned their city becoming a desert metropolis with all the trimmings. But they weren't prepared for the demographic side effect: the gradual sense that they were losing control, and the fear that whites would become a statistical minority in Arizona just as they are in California, Texas and New Mexico.
Tens of thousands of immigrants turned out for soccer games between teams from Mexico and the United States. In 2006, hundreds of thousands of people marched in downtown Phoenix to demand immigration reform.
"People would say, 'They're taking over,' " a former reporter told me. "There was a fear that this was becoming an immigrant city."
Something had to be done, and that something was the immigration law, or as some activists have dubbed it: the Mexican Removal Act.
Others say the law makes bigotry socially acceptable.
"The racists are out of the closet now," said a lifelong resident of the city. "And even more are going to come out in the future."
More than one person told me they believe the fear factor went through the roof when Barack Obama was elected president. For many, this was a sign the country was changing too fast. And, for their comfort level, they wanted to change it back to the way it used to be.
The problem with trying to do that in Arizona, where Mexicans are indigenous, is that "the way it used to be" looks a lot like the way it is now.
Contact Navarrette at firstname.lastname@example.org.