Illegal

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

They still stocked the store with a few new “luxury” items that women requested—inexpensive American hair dye, mascara, eyeliner, lipstick. Women also still bought cheap plastic earrings and bracelets and hair clips made in China. Shoplifting was on the upswing, and Araceli had posted signs (black marker, white paper and no-nonsense Spanish) that said shoplifters would be turned into the police.

The signs were meant to terrify customers into behaving. It was unlikely that Araceli actually would call police. But practically every undocumented immigrant with sticky fingers knew that a shopowner’s calling the police was tantamount to calling La Migra, because if you got arrested for shoplifting, you went to Sheriff Joe’s jail, and if you went to Sheriff Joe’s jail, the deputies had an agreement with ICE that allowed them to check your immigration status.

On the days I visited the store, this is what Spanish-speaking immigrants bought: Marlboros, Monster drinks, Pepsis, Coca-Cola, cheap plastic toys made in China (cowboys, Indians, farm animals, blonde dolls, guns) Cheetos, Doritos, milk, eggs, Clamato, Clorox, Funyons, Gatorade, Capri Sun, bicycle locks, pencils, notebook paper, pliers, socks, soap, lighters, and the Love Rose tube.

Araceli wrote out lists of products that had been sold and needed to be replaced. She wrote a different list for each warehouse Inocencio purchased from. On the first day I visited, one list read:

12 scissors

14 razors

22 boxes aluminum foil

30 trinkets or toys made in China

12 bicycle locks

5 bags clothespins

Inocencio and Araceli marked most goods up 30 to 50 percent. Love Rose tubes, marked up 75 percent, were an exception to the rule.

They needed to clear about $36,000 a year to meet their living expenses. Rent and utilities for the store cost about $13,500 annually. By my calculations, if they marked up merchandise 30 percent, they had to gross about $350 a day to cover both the store expenses and their living expenses. The week I visited, they grossed from $220 to $300 a day.

Their customers paid 8.6 percent sales tax on non-food items, which Inocencio, in turn, paid to the state and Maricopa County, which ironically funded Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s agency. (Inocencio was no fan of Sheriff Joe; he’d once joined a march to protest the sheriff’s treatment of immigrants but the heat had made him queasy.)

Sometimes, families dropped by to send money home. Araceli and Inocencio made $5.00 on each remittance sent to Mexico. The way it worked, a family member picked up a special telephone behind the counter, which connected to an operator for the company that would wire the remittance to a relative’s bank account. Araceli would collect the cash, and write a receipt. Then later on she’d deliver the cash to a nearby bank, and the money would be wired to Mexico. The dollar store got $5 for every remittance a customer sent to Mexico. Araceli told me remittances were down about 40 percent since 2007. During the week I visited the store, three families sent a total of $1,000. The decline in remittances in the dollar store mirrored a national trend that showed the interdependence of Mexican and American economies. Migrants sent $26 billion home to Mexico in 2007, but as the American economy worsened and more migrants returned to Mexico, remittances shrank to $21 billion in 2009. The remittances sent home by migrants are critical to Mexico’s financial stability. Only two other industries, drug trafficking and oil, are as critical to the Mexican economy.

Araceli and Inocencio decided in 2009 that they would make more money if they kept the store open longer – from 7:30 a.m. to 9 p.m. every day but Sunday. This was hard on their two kids, nine-year-old Mitzi and seven-year-old Jack, who were confined to the store from school until bed time. Inocencio had yanked two seats out of his van, and arranged them in front of the small television in the stock room. From behind the stock room curtain, Jack watched TV and played video games.

Sometimes, he’d sneak onto the family’s Toshiba laptop and order games without his parents’ permission.

Mitzi wrote an essay about the store for me.

“The store looks big, huge, large,” she wrote. “It is a big place with many, many things in it. It is also a beautiful place.”

A few sentences later, she noted: “I kind of like the store but not too much.”

She wrote that she liked ringing up sales on the cash register and helping her parents stock shelves. She didn’t like being cooped up all day after school, or on weekends, unless her cousins visited to play. Her parents were nice, she wrote, but sometimes they treated her and Jack “like little babies.”

Mitzi believed her mother and father were overly protective.

Every day, Araceli didn’t just drop the kids off at school, she marched them into their classrooms. She was the only mom who did this, and it embarrassed Mitzi.

And at the store, Araceli frequently checked up on the kids in the stockroom.

What Mitzi didn’t know was that a thirty-nine-year-old Anglo registered sex offender came to the store frequently. He lived in the neighborhood, and immigrants who’d lived in the area for a while told Inocencio the guy was a sex offender and that some official had gone door-to-door warning people about him. I actually saw the sex offender in Inocencio’s store one day, buying a treat for a little girl who looked about five or six years old.

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