ILLEGAL from Terry Greene Sterling

A penetrating chapter from former Phoenix New Times investigative reporter Terry Green Sterling's book: ILLEGAL: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone

High-strung, temperamental, take-charge Araceli and good-natured, happy-go-lucky-yet-stubborn Inocencio built a good marriage. Inocencio worked for a janitorial company, Araceli stayed at home with the kids. When she shopped or visited the Laundromat she took notice of nearby apartment buildings and duplexes and trailer parks where a lot of Mexican immigrants lived. There was money to be made there, she knew it.

On weekends, Araceli and Inocencio and the kids became door-to-door peddlers, selling sheets, blankets, and other bedding to people living in these high-density areas. Inocencio purchased the linens wholesale from an American distributor in Los Angeles. Araceli and Inocencio fused two cultures when they combined Mexican marketing with products they purchased in the United States. The door-to-door selling was common in Mexican villages in southern Mexico, and newly arrived immigrants felt comfortable with itinerant vendors who spoke their language and understood their customs. Interest-free credit arrangements could be made with a handshake; installment payments were agreed on. The informal credit arrangements were key to success.

You had to find just the right place to sell just the right product, is how Araceli and Inocencio had always seen things. In 2006, Araceli and Inocencio augmented their door-to-door peddling business when they rented one hundred square feet in a local Laundromat patronized almost exclusively by newly arrived immigrants. They paid $700 a month for the space, about $70 a square foot, but the Laundromat had a lot of customers who bought Ariel laundry soap (a Mexican detergent imported by an American company), as well as sodas, snacks, stuffed animals, gifts, and, yes, linens, from Araceli and Inocencio.

Inocencio quit his day job at the janitorial service.

Business was so good, Inocencio and Araceli saved $15,000.

Inocencio leased an empty 1,800 square-foot store near the Laundromat for $1,000 monthly. He started up an LLC. He got a business license. He officially became one of about 35,000 licensed Hispanic business owners in Arizona that, at the time, produced collective statewide revenues of about $4.3 billion. He and Araceli stocked the store with about 2,000 different items, most of which were American products. Among other things, they stocked toasters and toilet seat covers and coffee makers and milk and tortillas and eggs and potato chips and teddy bears and Mexican laundry soap and ceramic salt shakers designed to resemble strawberries. They sold phone cards and made commissions on remittances sent by immigrants to family members in Mexico. Back then, the foot traffic on the street was thick and steady at certain times, when school let out, after the workday, on weekends.

The first year, Inocencio reported a personal income of $72,000 and paid taxes on it. Araceli and Inocencio bought a house (in the same neighborhood where Inocencio’s siblings lived) for $156,000. Araceli indulged herself with frequent trips to Mervyns and Ross.

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.

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