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Immigrant Song

Mark Andresen

Last month, a Mesa mother of six was killed in a car accident. Within days, she'd been made a martyr by the anti-illegal-immigration movement.

Nanuma Lavulavu died when a 26-year-old Mexican national intentionally hit another car on the road. Guadalupe Perez-Bojorquez, according to the sheriff's report, admitted to being in this country illegally. He also admitted to snorting cocaine, ramming an SUV driven by an undercover sheriff's deputy, and fleeing the scene after the deputy crashed into Lavulavu's car.

In her 46 years, Lavulavu lived a quiet, anonymous existence. In death, she's become the poster child for an angry crowd convinced that immigrants are flooding our borders and wreaking havoc on our American way of life.

Arizona Republic columnist Laurie Roberts, the town crier for the anti-illegal set, called Lavulavu one in "the long, sad parade of people who were killed because our government can't or won't do what it takes to get control of the border." Google Lavulavu's name, and you'll get more than 400 hits, most of them linking to Roberts' story or echoing her perspective. You'll even find a Web site memorializing every American killed by an illegal alien.

But Lavulavu's life, and death, were far from the simple anti-immigration homily that Roberts portrayed them to be.

Really, when it comes to the immigration issue, there are no simple answers. We can squawk all we want about amnesty or shutting the border. The real solution is a lot more complicated.

It's the same with our individual stories. As writers, or bloggers, we can make someone the villain and someone else the innocent victim. But any time we bother to dig below the surface, the story gets messier.

That's as true for Nanuma Lavulavu, and the accident that killed her, as anything.

First off, Lavulavu herself was an immigrant — and was married for decades to a man who broke the law to help other immigrants stay here illegally.

Second, while the sheriff's report on the accident clearly indicates that Guadalupe Perez-Bojorquez was a reckless driver, it also raises questions about the deputy whose SUV struck Lavulavu.

After reading the 166-page report, I fully believe that Perez-Bojorquez engaged in violent behavior that triggered a terrible series of events.

But I'm also convinced of this: Nanuma Lavulavu's death could have been prevented if only the sheriff's deputy who hit her was a better driver.


There are a lot of things in the sheriff's report that make no sense, chiefly that, in its telling, a Mexican who's here illegally decides for no reason whatsoever to ram an SUV that pulls up behind him.

It's inexplicable behavior. But there are eyewitnesses who saw the deputy being rear-ended. The witnesses also saw him follow the SUV to continue the attack — leaving no question that Guadalupe Perez-Bojorquez is to blame for what happened, even if no one can explain why he'd behave so strangely. (The deputy claims Perez-Bojorquez was throwing empty beer bottles out the window, but no other witnesses have provided confirmation on that point.)

And so it's clearly not the fault of Maricopa County Sheriff's Deputy Robin Kinnett that his Ford Expedition was rear-ended. What's troubling is that, after the collision, Kinnett didn't pull over. He didn't even call for backup.

Instead, by his own telling, Kinnett did a U-turn in a parking lot, then pulled back into a busy intersection.

According to one witness, Kinnett was driving so quickly that he cut off another driver to get into the left-turn lane.

At that point, Perez-Bojorquez rammed Kinnett's Expedition again. This time, the Expedition plowed right into another car — the one driven by Nanuma Lavulavu.

Finally, Kinnett called 911. But instead of immediately begging for an ambulance for Lavulavu, Kinnett's focus was entirely on himself.

"I got a vehicle that just ran me off the road," Kinnett announced.

This self-absorption would be understandable in most cases; Kinnett had just gone through a harrowing ordeal. But he'd been a cop for more than 15 years — and still, the dispatcher had to tell Kinnett, twice, to stop screaming into the phone. Even after that, Kinnett took the time to explain his position with the sheriff's office before he got around to mentioning that another driver needed an ambulance.

It's the perfect metaphor for Nanuma Lavulavu's tragic end: Everybody has been too busy shouting about peripheral issues to look at what really happened on the night of June 19.

And what happened is cause for concern. There's no reason that Deputy Kinnett should still be on the road, especially in a sheriff's department Expedition.

He certainly could have handled this one differently.

He could have pulled off the road after Perez-Bojorquez hit him the first time — and stayed there long enough to call for backup, or even 911.

 

After he'd been rear-ended, Kinnett had no business getting back onto the road, much less making his way into far left lane. That's simply begging for a collision.

He should have known better — because, for one thing, this isn't the first time that Kinnett's driving has resulted in injury.

Four years ago, Kinnett struck two motorcyclists, hitting them hard enough to throw them from their bikes, according to a civil suit filed by the bikers. Although the bikers' lawyer, Charles Franklin, believes that Kinnett should have been cited, he wasn't.

Once again, in the accident that killed Nanuma Lavulavu, Deputy Kinnett doesn't appear to have been cited, much less reprimanded by his employer.

As New Times readers may recall, Sheriff Joe Arpaio refuses to talk to us. His spokesman declined to take any questions. But the sheriff has told other reporters that he's closed the Lavulavu case without further investigation into Kinnett's actions. Nothing in the files I saw contradicted that statement.

Perez-Bojorquez has been charged with second-degree murder. Case closed.

Who's surprised by that? It's easier for Sheriff Joe to direct all the blame to a coked-up Mexican guy than to continue an inquiry that could reflect badly on his own man.


Nanuma Lavulavu is dead, and figuring out exactly what happened that night in west Phoenix won't bring her back.

But making Lavulavu a martyr for the anti-immigration cause won't do that, either. If anything, it's an insult to Lavulavu and the complicated life she lived.

In some of the anti-immigration blogs that have adopted Lavulavu as their heroine, writers insist that despite her foreign-sounding name, Lavulavu wasn't an immigrant. They claim that she's Hawaiian.

That may fit a simplistic worldview — the Mexican is the killer, the American is the innocent victim — but it doesn't fit the facts.

Nanuma Lavulavu immigrated to this country from Tonga when she was 31 years old. At the time, she and her husband, Samuela, were well on their way to having six children, making them one of those big families that anti-immigration types like to whine about. (You know: "I don't hate illegals, I just don't understand why they have to have so many damn kids when we have to pay for their schools and their medical care.")

After moving to Oakland, and then Utah, the Lavulavus' story was no get-rich-quick tale of white-collar work and white picket fences. In 1997, records show, Lavulavu's husband was arrested. He was charged with forging papers, part of a scheme to obtain fake Utah birth certificates for his fellow immigrants.

Samuela Lavulavu eventually pleaded guilty to three felonies. After he violated his parole, he did a few months in jail. (His brother, a member of the Tongan parliament, also pleaded guilty to charges related to the scheme.)

If these guys were Mexicans, you can imagine what Laurie Roberts would be saying.

Deport them now!

But here's the thing. Nanuma Lavulavu's life is no more an argument that we should kick out foreigners than her death was. For all the difficulties that the Lavulavus must have had in this country, theirs really is the classic immigrant story.

And that's because of their kids.

Nanuma Lavulavu and her husband may not have had an easy time of it here. But according www.lavulavufamily.com, a Web site put up by friends of the family, their children have found success. One works for U.S. Airways. One is a manager at a concrete company. Another served a tour of duty as a United States Marine in Iraq.

These days, we demand instant success from our immigrants. Why can't they speak English? Why should we pay their emergency room bills?

We want people moving here to come with precisely the right papers, to fit in immediately, to thrive in the bourgeois class.

But that's not the immigrant story. It never has been.

It's terribly difficult to move to a country with a different language, and different customs, from your own. The reason many immigrants keep going, and keep working, is that they want things to be better for their children.

That's what the Lavulavus did. And despite the horrible accident that took their mother's life, I can only hope that the six Lavulavu children, and their children, continue to believe in this country and continue to thrive here.

REPUBLIC ESCAPEES

Trouble continues to plague Arizona's largest daily newspaper.

As I wrote last month, the Arizona Republic has been plagued with high-profile departures ("It's a Wrap," June 7). Since then, even more reporters have said their goodbyes, including such big names as Jodie Snyder, who covered health care for years, and Stephanie Paterik, who covered tourism. They've gone to Banner Health and Phoenix Magazine, respectively. Hal Mattern, a 28-year veteran who used to write the paper's "Biz Buzz," is also leaving for a PR job.

 

But it's a circulation move that has northern Arizona readers in a tizzy. Last week, the Republic announced that it was halting distribution to Page and Tuba City. A Republic executive told the Arizona Daily Sun that the area was just too far away to provide "consistent, high-quality service."

Dick Hile has lived in Page nearly 30 years and subscribed to the Republic for all of them. But now, he'll start his days without a copy of the paper on his doorstep.

"It's really a shame," he says. "The rest of Arizona is thriving, growing, and doing well — and they're just ignoring it."

With the change, the Republic loses only 300-something subscribers. But Hile thinks the paper may grow to regret its rejection.

"They're doing us a disservice," he says, "but they're also shooting themselves in the foot."

TRIBUNE TROUBLES

If times are hard at the Republic, they're downright Dickensian over at the East Valley Tribune.

My sources tell me that editors at the paper have been given copies of Our Iceberg Is Melting, a tome written by a Harvard Business School guy who wants to help people adapt to change. Like, er, not having jobs anymore?

Enough people have left the Tribune that the paper, despite some major financial problems, may yet avoid layoffs. But sources say that that management's next move could be ugly: Mimicking one of the Republic's least-popular initiatives, the shrunken Monday edition, the Tribune plans to combine its business and feature sections. (Not, alas, just on Mondays.) Even worse, the already skinny paper is planning to cut four pages out of its daily news hole. That means shorter stories will be a mandate.

But not to fear! My sources say that the Trib plans to post longer stories online. Readers left wanting more can just log on to the paper's Web site.

Never mind that newspaper Web sites have increasingly proved themselves a mediocre source of revenue, at best. And never mind that the Trib's Web site, in particular, is an unnavigable mess.

It's funny. Newspaper executives like to talk about how reporters need to move with the times, that we're going to all have to learn to survive in an advertising market where dailies get an increasingly small piece of the pie.

But instead of making their newspapers more readable, say, or breaking bigger stories, the executives in this business seem intent on building a big fat bonfire right in the middle of the iceberg. Is anyone surprised that it's melting?


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