Today’s post is by contributing writer Feliciano Vera:

I was going for the Mexican Ming the Merciless look.  Sporting a freshly shaved head – a minor protest against an economy in the gutter – as well as a goatee and mustache, I could easily have been mistaken for your friendly neighborhood cholo.

Ensconced as I was amid the couches at Postino Arcadia, that was the farthest thought from my mind.  Drinking prosecco with a polyglot group of friends during a not-too-distant holiday season, the mood was cheerful and celebratory, despite the dire state of the economy.  We had just entered the Great Recession.  While the Phoenix market had already cratered, the savage global market cavitations of 2008 were not yet in our sights.

As the night wore on, the conversation meandered towards the seasonal DUI checkpoints.  Despite our desperate attempts to pollute our livers, the entirety of the group gathered that night were (and remain) on the responsible end of the spectrum: there were at least a few designated drivers among us.

But my mood darkened almost immediately when my friend Omer recounted several brushes with the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office.  Turns out he had been pulled over not once, but twice by MCSO.  On both occasions he left without a citation or warning, but his last interaction put me on edge.  A sheriff’s deputy effectively detained Omer for several hours before he was sent on his way.

An IT consultant, Omer is one of smartest guys I know.  He’s designed information security systems for central banks and major financial institutions.  An avocational photographer and blogger, he speaks multiple languages, and is always on the cutting edge of music and food trends.  More inclined to explore a city by foot, his car is perennially coated in dust.  In short, he is a poster boy for the creative class.

He speaks with a slight accent when he drinks, betraying his country of origin.  While Canadian English may be grounds for an assault by a wayward real estate developer, it usually fails to provide enough probable cause for a traffic stop.  But Omer cannot help the fact that he is over six feet tall and about as brown as they come.

In Arizona that may well be enough cause for a stop.

And that terrified me.  Especially given my Mexican Ming the Merciless look at the time.  While that night I may have been pushing the sartorial limits of my wardrobe, I am equally comfortable wearing a white t-shirt and khakis.

With a shaved head, I could easily be profiled as a trouble maker, even without any teardrops or gothic lettering tattooed on my body.

Mind you, between the real estate development partnerships and investment banking work I was engaged in, I had already managed to attract significant capital investments to Arizona – a little over $75 million at that time.  I have a degree from a second rate diploma mill that’s been operating for more than 375 years in Massachusetts.  And I like prosecco.

But to a good chunk of our elected officials, none of that matters for the sole reason that I happen to have brown skin and a polysyllabic name with more vowels than they care to pronounce.

And that, my friends, is as much your problem as it is mine.

As I write this, Arizona stands squarely in the middle of the national conversation on immigration, in part because of the anticipated Supreme Court ruling on the constitutionality of SB1070, as well as the President’s announcement on June 15th of a new administration directive on deferred action for children and young adults brought into this country by their parents without papers.  Amid the internecine sniping between talking heads, conventional wisdom seems to be that immigration and economic concerns are disparate topics, incapable of being digested at the same time by a good chunk of the electorate, Latinos in particular.

But let’s not kid ourselves: any discussion about immigration or the economy that attempts to distill policy from raw emotion is fundamentally dishonest.  If there is a common emotional thread between both conversations, it is one of fear and anxiety.  Regardless of whether you are in the 1% or the 99%, the last several years have done nothing to instill a sense of hope or optimism.  If you’re scared or anxious, you’re less likely to make an investment decision (no decision is a good decision!) or seek out a new job (assuming you have one).

The particularly noxious stated desire of Arizona to promote immigration enforcement through attrition does little to alleviate the economic anxieties of roughly one of every three Arizonans.  Anti-immigrant policies such as SB1070 aggravate those anxieties, further limiting our ability to attract talent, to say nothing of capital.  After all, why would someone like my friend Omer decide to plant roots here, when he has worked in New York City, Manchester, and elsewhere?  If we want to attract from a global pool of talent and capital, and compete on a global scale, then we must reconcile ourselves to the basic reality that most people in this world neither speak English nor are as light complexioned as some may like.

If we fail to do so, then we will do nothing more than sow the seeds of our own economic destruction, no matter how much we might want to create a generically “business friendly” environment.

Because talent is what fuels economic growth, and talent will always flock to where it is welcome, with capital following right behind it.  And if we want to create a great desert city, then we better be damn serious about welcoming anybody crazy enough to live in 110 degree weather, regardless of skin color or country of origin.

We’ve already lost Omer to San Francisco.  I’m not sure we can afford to lose many more like him.

Photo Credit: Taken at an April 2010 SB 1070 protest, courtesy of the author.

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5 Responses

  1. Will Novak says:

    I think this whole issue is somewhat of a battle between old Arizona and old Arizonans and the new. As hard as it may be to remember, Arizona was once a very progressive State. We extended voting rights to women well ahead of the rest of the Country, our State Constitution had ‘crazy progressive’ things in it like the recall of Judges, and Arizona was controlled by the Democratic party for years. After WW2 as our State was flooded with middle class whites from Minnesota and Iowa, things changed and never really looked back.

    In my personal experience I find the divide between those who are pro SB1070/anti immigration and those who are more progressive seems to break down along the above lines. Those ‘true’ Arizonans, people from multi generational Arizona families or who have grown up here their entire lives have zero problems with the Hispanic community and welcome increased immigration with open arms. The more recent arrivals from the snow covered wastelands of the upper midwest seem to be the ones eternally afraid of our brown skinned friends.

    It’ll be interesting to see which side wins out in the coming years. The Midwesterners now have the numbers, but the true Arizonans, like myself, are the more passionate ones who are involved and love the community and State. I think in the long run ‘we’ win out.

  2. Phx Planner says:

    I’m a regular reader of this blog as well as Rogue Columnist, and this is the best piece I’ve read in some time because it’s the type of dialogue that starts to scratch the surface at the heart of what type of city we want to be. And its written very Phoenix.

    We’re dangerously close to becoming a police state. And I don’t say this casually. If we are ever going to be a competitive city and a place worth caring about, we must reverse our course and get off this path we are going down. All the enlightened architecture, public/private partnerships, bike sharing programs, walkable streets, etc. is a complete waste of time if the fundamentals of who we are is a place no one wants to live in.

    I’m a Phoenix native, not a Latino, but I won’t live in a city whose future has been written by those who represent SB 1070. Because it represents much more than just xenophobia, and smug bigotry. It represents our soul. If we’re too timid to confront living in a city that accepts civil rights violations and a disturbing militarization of much of our law enforcement, then we’re too timid to confront pretty much anything.

    The only hope that keeps me here in my home town is the flicker of the bold, risk taking young leaders represented by the Feliciano’s, Kimber Lanning’s, and Viri Hernandez’s out there. If we can’t figure out a way to enable this part of Phoenix’s DNA to be the dominant gene, then I don’t think there is much hope for the future of our place.

  3. Josh says:

    Will, I think you’re seriously mischaracterizing the debate here. It’s not pro/con Hispanic, it’s pro/con RULE OF LAW. How can we develop any city services if they are available to a never ending stream of illegal aliens?

  4. Feliciano Vera says:

    The contours of this conversation are interesting, as always.

    Josh brings up an excellent point about the delivery of public services and goods that is thoroughly embedded in any discussion of urbanism.

    Let’s take the problem of paying for streets and sidewalks – actually, let’s expand that analysis to the problem of paying for transportation infrastructure writ large.

    Who is to pay for streets in a given jurisdiction? The residents of that jurisdiction? How do we monitor who has paid and who hasn’t paid for the privilege of using those streets? Shall we enact a toll system, thereby creating a dedicated funding mechanism for those streets? If we do so, then what happens to those residents who cannot afford to pay the tolls? Do we make a collective decision that they cannot or should not access life’s basic necessities because they cannot pay the toll?

    Do we limit use of those streets to residents of our jurisdiction? What are the consequences of such limitations on our ability to compete for trade and commerce beyond the limits of our jurisdiction?

    The challenge we run into when we oversimplify any policy discussion into a binary choice, particularly with respect to the efficacy of a given policy, is that such a framework arbitrarily, and I would argue, unnecessarily, limits the palette of choices available. One would not want a doctor to remove an arm simply because of a minor bout of carpal tunnel syndrome. Nor would a pastry chef want to use margarine when lard may make their crusts much tastier.

    But then again, maybe I just like lard in my pastries.

  5. Josh says:


    The issue isn’t streets and basic infrastructure, it’s more substantial services such as healthcare and education whose funding is being undermined by exploitation from foreign nationals, primarily from Mexico.

    In that sense, being critical of Illegal Aliens looks as if it were racist, because 95+% of them are from Mexico. In my view it’s not really fair to the issue to apply racism to it. First we have to examine the very drastic economic effects illegal aliens have, and consider things like racial discrimination to be, at most, secondary.

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