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Exiled From Arizona, Immigrant Begins Anew in California

by Sugriel Reyes / New America Media


She sits in her room, absorbed in a book of homemade natural remedies. Her petite frame is lost in a wooden twin-size bed that sits amid a monstrous pile of clothes, books, shoes, blankets, pillows, towels and makeup her teenage niece refers to as her side of the room.
Reading is what Claudia spends most of her time doing. Living on the outskirts of Los Angeles and without a car, it is hard to get around. She takes the bus to work, a small clothing boutique in Pasadena that gives her 10 hours a week. The little money she makes, she saves, in hopes of one day affording her own apartment.

A year ago, Claudia’s life looked very different. She rented a one-bedroom apartment in Tempe, Arizona, her home for almost 10 years. The 41-year-old immigrant from Mexico taught Spanish to businessmen, children, and women who needed to better communicate with their Spanish-speaking domestic workers. Her favorite part of the day was when the sun would finally set and the burning weather outside became bearable enough for an evening run. She loved to go out dancing with her girlfriends on Friday nights and enjoyed her life as a single, independent woman.

That all changed when Arizona passed SB1070. The law, which criminalizes the state’s undocumented population, has become the blueprint for similar anti-immigrant legislation across the country.

During her last month in Arizona, Claudia lived like a fugitive. Being undocumented meant not being able to drive her car to work because she did not have a license. Instead of going on her daily run, she stayed home for fear of being stopped by local police officers. As the situation worsened, she was forced to leave her home and move to Los Angeles, where she now lives with her sister, the sister’s husband and niece in a two-bedroom apartment.

Claudia is stuck in limbo, though she is optimistic that she will one day gain legal status and reclaim her independence. In the interim, like the thousands of others who have fled Arizona, she remains an exile.
A study released in March 2011 by the Center for American Progress (CAP) warned an enforcement-only approach to immigration could lead to a loss of 17.2 percent of total employment in Arizona and shrink the state’s economy by $48.8 billion.

Although portions of the law were ruled unconstitutional in federal court, Gov. Jan Brewer appealed the decision. The constitutionality of SB1070 will ultimately be decided by the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hearing arguments on the matter this week.

For Claudia, relocating to California from Arizona was harder than leaving Mexico for the United States 17 years ago. Back then, she says, the southern border was not as dangerous as it has now become.

“The first time I crossed, in 1994, my older brother knew of an isolated area between Nogales, Mexico and Nogales, Arizona. What separated the two countries was nothing but a barbed wire fence, no bigger than the ones you see in high schools,” she says, pausing.

“I remember finding a hole in the fence. I wiggled my way through it then walked like a mile down to a store and that’s where my brother was waiting for me. I was already in the United States.”

Claudia only planned to stay in the U.S. for a year or two. “I hear other people’s stories and I know I was very fortunate to have my family here, my sister and my two brothers… Regardless, I never wanted to leave Mexico. No one wants to leave Mexico, but people need to work. They need to support their families and the minimum salary back home was, and still is, a disgrace.”

Before leaving her hometown of El Chavez, Sinaloa, Claudia taught literature to high school students. But during her last six months, she stopped getting paychecks. The administration at the school would give her the runaround, telling her they had sent her check, but months went by and she received nothing.

“I accepted my reality and knew that if I stayed in such a small town, I would not be able to achieve the goals I had for myself,” she says. “There were no jobs for professionals in Mexico, so I left.”

Over the next seven years in Arizona, Claudia was able to find various jobs in retail, and even became a Spanish teacher for adults. She bought her own car, and lived the life she’d always dreamed of.
Then came SB 1070.

“Like Mexico, I didn’t want to leave Arizona,” she says. “I had established my life there. I felt like every other citizen, until these laws surfaced and created this negative stigma and hostility towards people in my situation.”

As Claudia pauses, she takes a minute to ponder the drastic changes that have occurred over the past year. She breathes, then giggles. “Life keeps moving on. I’m optimistic that something good will come out of this.”

Sugriel Reyes studies journalism at San Francisco State University. Her reporting is part of a special ‘Stories From the Diaspora’ series profiling the lives of immigrants across California and beyond.

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