11/24/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Immigration Reform on the Front Burner in Arizona

Immigration reform seems to have dropped to the bottom of the pile of issues in this election for most of us, but for my Mexican and Guatemalan friends, it's all about "who is better for people without papers." That's the candidate who will get their votes.

For many years, no one enforced immigration policies in Arizona with any consistency. Then the subject became a hot button, and Sheriff Joe Arpaijo took it upon himself to enforce border security in Maricopa County, Arizona. Never mind that it's more than a hundred miles from the border. He has made enough sweeps to capture illegal immigrants, and stopped enough people who looked the part, to produce the desired effect: families are separated, businesses are closed, and houses are vacant.

I'm not Hispanic, but I've been here for forty years, and "some of my best friends" are. This means Rafael, the man who landscapes my yard, and has been doing so for five years. He's from Guatemala, and he's legal. It means Olivia, my housekeeper from Mexico, who has been with me for fifteen years. She's legal. And my hairdresser Nellie, who has been cutting and coloring my hair for the past five years. She owns a salon, and became a citizen last year. I'm very attached to her, because she's a woman entrepreneur.

But being legal yourself doesn't solve the problem for many members of the Hispanic community. Nellie's story shows how the cascade of events stemming from randomly enforced immigration laws hits everybody, legal and illegal alike.

Nellie owns a Mexican salon. I love it. A Mexican salon is like a family party, where the whole clan gathers for haircuts, extensions, highlights and chat. The grandma comes, and the babies come. She's a great stylist, but her salon also makes me feel good.

Nellie's salon used to be a beehive at all time, and you took a number to get your hair cut. I learn Spanish there. Today I went in for my appointment and it was empty.

She told me 27 Mexican salons in Phoenix have already closed. If people don't have "papers," they are not allowed to work, and they can't get a haircut. They also can't get back to Mexico, because many of them have been here for decades, and have lost their connection to home. Their children were born here.

Nellie told me she was behind in her mortgage. She, of course, was victimized by a predatory lender who knew her English was poor, and allowed her (a single woman) to buy a large house in a suburb forty miles from her salon. Her mortgage adjusted from $2000 a month ( sub prime rate) to almost $4000 a month, but she didn't walk away because of her credit.

Until last month, she could make the payments. Now, because of a confluence of gas prices and decreased business, she can't.

When we had low unemployment rates, businesses in Arizona fought immigration reform. Now, they're laying off anyway, so they probably don't care. Rafael, the landscaper, has already given his house back to the bank because he can't get people to work for him. And his business, too, is off.

Entire apartment complexes are empty; the tenants have gone back to Mexico. Landlords are hurting. Latino food stores are hurting. The Phoenix economy, dislocated already by the real estate downturn, is further dislocated by the mass exodus of Mexicans, legal and illegal, from what is now considered a hostile environment.

I'm no expert, but I know that Immigration reform is a complicated issue that can't afford to be shelved because of the election. Arizona's economy, like those of many other states, grew with the assumption that we would have Latino consumers, Latino laborers, and Latino taxpayers. When they go away, everyone suffers.