Valley Fever spent part of Monday afternoon at the home of Bobbie Meza, a 1982 graduate of Tempe High School. Her family is kind of like the Brady Bunch, except Dad's an illegal immigrant in jail for identity theft.
Meza is 44 years old, wearing a black tank top and jeans. A little boy and girl, 7 and 8 years old, scamper through the one-bedroom West Mesa apartment and onto the small balcony, in full play mode following their day at school. Twelve-year-old Alex sits to chat with us -- he's a pleasant and respectful young lad, wearing an Arizona Cardinals' jersey with Anquan Boldin's number. The kids, especially, have been devastated by the January 24 arrest of their father, Jose Luis Meza, who will be in the Maricopa County jail until April 14.
There's no mistaking the hatred Bobbie and Alex have for Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
"I just can't stand Arpaio," says Bobbie.
"There's not a word to describe him," says Alex.
Yet when Alex is told by New Times that Jose's arrest had nothing to do with Arpaio, or the sheriff's office, he appears momentarily stunned.
"No?" he asks, shaking his head in bewilderment.
His mother, however, nods knowingly. She's not confused about the facts -- or why she dislikes the sheriff so intensely.
Meza sees Arpaio as a monster created by a America's failure to deal humanely with Mexican immigrants. She believes Arpaio's an egotistical fear-monger who breaks up families.
But he didn't break up hers.
She admits her husband broke the law. Still, she's an American citizen who just wants her husband back once he serves time for his crime.
"He's very romantic," she says. "I miss him making me breakfast. I really have it hard. At night I break down and cry."
Meza says she's lost more than 51 pounds since Jose's been in jail.
Of course, it should go without saying that the kids need their father. The guy even has two cats who miss him, for Pete's sake.
From what Bobbie's been told, Jose's bogus Social Security Number was red-flagged in January after the person actually assigned to the number applied for food stamps. Jose was then arrested by Tempe police.
First, a little back story:
Bobbie Meza's originally from Ohio and moved to Arizona with her stepfather when she was 13. She's been married twice before and has six kids, in total. The oldest is 30; Bobbie's actually a grandma, too.
Her second husband is Hispanic -- he's Alex's biological father. Alex still uses the local man's last name and spends time with him frequently.
Bobbie met Jose in 1999 while dating his friend.
"We were just friends at first, but it grew into something else," she says.
Jose, who grew up in Oaxaca, was far younger than Bobbie -- he'll be 29 next month -- but he wore her out with his proposals. When he asked her a fourth time, she agreed. They were married in Mesa on November 25, 2000.
Bobbie pulls out the wedding album and shows off some pictures:
Yeah, she knew he was an undocumented immigrant who had crossed the border illegally to gain entry to the United States. They meant to do something about that, someday. Immigration lawyers are expensive. The outcome of the potential legal proceedings was uncertain. They had one, then two babies to deal with.
To Alex, a sixth-grade student, Jose is his other father -- that part, anyway, is a situation familiar to many Americans. Jose is also Dad to Alex's two younger siblings. He's a mentor and playmate to the kids, when he's not working his butt off.
You see, Jose is a motivated sort. He speaks English very well. He's a good cook who worked for an East Valley restaurant. He supports his children and stay-at-home wife. He ended up in trouble this year because he took a second job.
But he'd been in trouble before because of his immigration status. In 2002, Jose was picked up at a Border Patrol checkpoint on Interstate 8 as the family was coming back from a beach vacation. Alex, then 5, didn't really understand what had happened. Jose was back home in a few days.
"It was around 10 I started knowing he was an illegal," says Alex.
The separation has been tough on the kids. Meza says little Zachary, 7, has been showing behavior problems and doesn't want to play video games -- something he and Jose did constantly. Autumn Rose, 8, cannot bring herself to talk to her father when he calls from jail -- she bursts into tears.
Jose calls often -- he still helps Alex with his homework. He calls while New Times is at the apartment. He's just trying to get through each day, and tries not to think about the month he's got left to serve.
"It's hard," Jose tells New Times. "I want to be with my family."
Neither Jose nor Bobbie no for sure what will happen once Jose is released from local custody.
The U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has a hold on him, which means he probably has the option of voluntary departure -- a bus trip to the border and no formal deportation. He may request an immigration hearing, in which case Bobbie will post bond so he can come home. They've got a public defender, and Bobbie has heard Jose may be able to get a green card after spending one year in Mexico. New Times isn't prepared to wade through the Meza's legal quagmire, but it seems Jose's status as Bobbie's husband must be helping the situation.
She's prepared to take the family to live in Mexico, if that's what it comes to, she says. She'd prefer a nice beach town like Cancun, she says. But her best bet, moneywise, would be to live just over the border and commute to work each day in the United States.
"I here in the States almost 12 years, I never do anything bad. I never do drugs," Jose says. "I want to support my family."
Alex has been to jail twice to see Jose. The first time -- rough. Jose was handcuffed to a table and his ankles were shackled. Alex didn't like seeing him in stripes and pink booties.
There was a bit of levity the second time, though:
"He was like, huge!" Alex says.
Alex explains with a grin that, a few weeks before his arrest, Jose -- a talented soccer player -- had been complaining that he had no time for exercise. Now he's got nothing to do all day but work out.
But it's no playground in jail, Jose confirms. The worst part is the disgusting food, which Jose resisted at first, "but you have to eat."
Arpaio routinely brags about the humiliating jail conditions he has imposed on inmates, many of whom haven't been convicted of a crime. That's another reason Bobbie Meza despises Arpaio.
The Mezas found an outlet for their anti-Arpaio sentiment on February 19, when President Barack Obama visited a nearby school. They joined local protesters and Alex held up a sign: "Arpaio breaks up families." A local Spanish-language TV news station put them on the air, which resulted in more media time: GQ magazine and a "film crew" from Los Angeles came out last week to interview the Mezas, and now this epic Valley Fever blog post.
We'll try to let you know what happens.
But it's possible the Mezas may not want media attention in the near future.
If Bobbie's husband can't find a legal means of coming home, she expects he'll take his chances -- and do what's best for the family.
While chatting with Bobbie Meza, New Times loaned a point-and-shoot camera to the youngest kids to play with; here are the pictures they took:
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