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Supreme Court's Decision on SB 1070 Won't Stop the Hate in Arizona

Paula Varela wanted to show me something. During a recent visit to her modest, well-kept South Phoenix home, the small, 79-year-old woman led me to a dining room next to the kitchen and turned on the light.

Spread out on a table were at least 10 plaques featuring photos of various youth baseball teams. The Little Diamondbacks, the Phoenix White Sox, and more.

In each, Paula's late son Juan Varela stands next to the youngsters, wearing the outfit of their team. The plaques thank Juan for volunteering his time as a coach. They are just a few of the plaques Juan received over the years.


Stephen Lemons

"The time he was not working, he spent it with the kids," she says.

Juan also coached soccer and football teams. His mother's living room is filled with trophies her sons' teams won, as well as photos of Juan, a smiling bear of a man, and his other siblings. By all accounts, he was beloved by the community.

The 44-year-old was Paula's baby, the youngest of her 15 children — 11 girls and four boys. He spent a lot of time helping her, with her medications, with work on the lawn. In fact, he was on the lawn, picking chiles for salsa, when the man who was going to kill him approached.

Gary Kelley lived two houses down from the Varelas. In the early afternoon of May 6, 2010, an inebriated Kelley marched down to where Juan was standing. The two were not friends. Other than a couple of negative interactions, the Varelas say, they kept their distance from him.

In his second 2011 trial for second-degree murder (the first trial ended in a hung jury), Kelley testified that he'd wanted to talk to Juan that day about Arizona's lightning-rod immigration legislation, Senate Bill 1070, which Governor Jan Brewer had signed into law on April 23, about two weeks earlier.

Kelley had asked Juan whether he was coming from or going to a 1070 protest march, though there was no march that day. Things went downhill from there.

Juan's brother, Tony, was bringing back his mother from a nearby Kmart when he saw Juan and Kelley talking.

Something was not right, Tony thought. So he parked the car and, before taking the items he and his mom had purchased into the house, walked up to Kelley and his brother.

The three men argued. During the confrontation, Kelley used ethnic slurs and yelled, "You fucking Mexican! Go back to Mexico!" and, "If you don't go back to Mexico, you're going to die."

Tony said his brother tried to kick Kelley but missed. Kelley lifted his shirt, pulled a .38 revolver from his waistband, pointed it at Juan, and shot him in the neck. He then pointed the gun at Tony but didn't shoot, finally turning and walking back to his home.

Juan lay on the ground, blood gushing from him. He later was transported to Good Samaritan Hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Kelley's "go back to Mexico" statement was particularly ignorant. The Varela family goes back several generations in this country.

"My grandma was from Texas," Paula Varela told me. "My mother was from Texas. I'm from Texas. My two oldest kids are from Texas. We're all good American citizens."

Indeed, the matriarch has three grandchildren in the military, one of whom recently returned from Afghanistan.

During his trial, Kelley repeatedly denied that he is a racist, and though the jury that convicted him declined to grant hate-crime-enhanced sentencing in his case, Kelley admitted that 1070 was his reason for approaching Juan Varela that day.

As a result, Kelley profiled his neighbor as illegal, taking it upon himself to implement 1070's stated intent of "attrition through enforcement," albeit in the most extreme fashion possible.

SB 1070 was designed to drive out Latinos living in the state illegally. That is unquestionable. But there was a poorly veiled, more nefarious purpose, one that was implicit in the writing of a law that, when fully enacted, would find the Varelas as suspect as an illegal day laborer, because of the color of their skin.

This purpose was a state-sponsored, 21st-century variation of ethnic cleansing. Sure, the statute itself does not literally instruct law enforcement officers, "Go out and hassle Hispanics 'til they amscray," but it's a no-brainer that the overwhelming majority of the illegal immigration that flows through a border state like Arizona involves migrants from Latin America.

Given that salient fact, how would an Anglo ever be subject to the same scrutiny as a Latino when stopped by cops required by SB 1070 to act as immigration agents? How would a police officer develop "reasonable suspicion" of a white family out for a Sunday drive?

The answers are obvious. So obvious that you would think that even the most conservative members of the U.S. Supreme Court, which is hearing oral arguments this week on the Obama administration's challenge of 1070, would recognize this reality and rule accordingly.

"SB 1070 targets those with brown skin," former U.S. Senator Dennis DeConcini told the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee the other day, during a hearing on 1070. "And in my state, those are my neighbors, my friends."

DeConcini, who was Pima County Attorney before he was a senator, is no liberal, no "open-borders anarchist," as nativists like to smear their opponents.

A pro-law-enforcement Democrat who has endorsed Joe Arpaio for sheriff in the past, DeConcini has made it clear that 1070 is one law he does not support. During his testimony before the committee, he spoke eloquently of the culture Anglos and Latinos share in this state while decrying the "toxic environment" the law has created.

Juan Varela's sister Susie Mendoza, who was at her mom's home with Tony and other family members when I stopped by, believes that "toxic environment" is part of the reason her brother is now dead.

If you roll back your memory banks to April and May 2010, you may recall that the fight over 1070 was at a fever pitch. Anger and animosity reigned. It was not until federal Judge Susan R. Bolton enjoined the most troubling aspects of the law, on July 28, 2010, that Arizona gradually began to defuse.

"We are probably more angry at the governor [Jan Brewer] and [recalled state Senate President] Russell Pearce," Mendoza says when I ask how she felt toward Kelley. "Because they're the ones that placed all of this fear in the minds of so many people."

Certainly, both Brewer (who signed it) and Pearce (who pimped it) used 1070 for short-term political gain. Each politician amped up public anxiety over illegal immigration, wrongly asserting that Arizona was out of control, with headless bodies in the desert and crime rampant.

Actually, crime had been trending down for several years in Arizona, and illegal entries also were on the decline, largely because of America's ailing economy. But that's not what you saw in the local media.

Reasoned analysis gave way to scapegoating, as local TV stations blared segments with titles better suited to wrestling matches, feeding into the atmosphere of acrimony.

Sadly, Kelley, not only ended a life of a brother, a son, a father, a husband, an uncle, and a coach in shooting Juan Varela, he also ruined his own life. At 52, he's doing a 27 1/2-year stretch in state prison.

When county Superior Court Judge Susan Brnovich sentenced Kelley, she said he was a murderer, not a racist. True, there's no evidence that Kelley was a white supremacist. The onetime golf course worker had Latino friends, and much was made of the fact that his ex-wife is Latino.

About that, I'll point out that disbarred former County Attorney Andrew Thomas, a man who is no friend of the Latino community, has a Hispanic wife. Similarly, Pearce, easily the state's biggest bigot, has half-Latino grandchildren.

In a diverse society like ours, such cognitive dissonance is necessary for bigots, nativists, and racists to maintain their extremist viewpoints. Rationalizing one's own inconsistencies and those of one's family members seems to be part of human nature.

There's a metaphor for Arizona in Kelley's behavior. A third of this state's population is Hispanic. It is nearly impossible for someone to live in Arizona without having friends, acquaintances, family, or neighbors who are Latino.

Even the most sheltered individuals still have to come in contact with Latinos while residing in the Grand Canyon State.

And yet Arizona is now known nationally and internationally as a state full of anti-Mexican bigots. Why?

Because in this life — and some believe in the next — we are judged by our actions.

And as the gospels tell us, "A good tree cannot bring forth evil fruit, neither can a corrupt tree bring forth good fruit."

The politicians elected and empowered by Arizonans made 1070 the law, and so the majority of our citizenry must accept responsibility for a statute that has caused widespread panic, division, and distrust.

SB 1070 has been the bad tree in our midst, and from it, we've harvested evil fruit. Varela's death being one of the most evil yet.

"It's something you have to live with the rest of your life," Juan's brother, Tony, says. "Seeing your own brother die and not knowing why [his killer] didn't shoot you."

Varela's mom's words are even more poignant.

"If I knew [Kelley] had a pistol and he was going to do that," she says, wiping tears from the corner of her eyes, "I would [have gotten] in front of Juan. I'm already old and I already lived. And [Juan had] his little girl."

Juan Varela's daughter, Paulita, was 13 at the time her father was murdered. He also left behind his wife, Maria.

The Varelas' loss is our loss. Scores of letters to the judge in the case are entered into the court record. They are from people who knew Juan Varela, from community leaders, nephews and nieces, and young people whom Varela coached. They talk of him being a kind, generous, amiable man.

He's not our only loss from 1070. Arizona's economy and reputation have suffered. Contrary to the lies told by its supporters, 1070 has not made us safer, nor has it helped the state or its residents in any way.

Regardless of what the U.S. Supreme Court decides, Arizona will receive no redemption for what's already been allowed to transpire in this state. Nor will it bring back Varela to his family.

But there is one way we can do penance. We can root out Brewer and Pearce's tree of hate. We can elect politicians who will repeal 1070, and each of us can become intolerant of the intolerance 1070 has produced.

Perhaps then, if the process of healing begun last year with the successful recall of Pearce continues and expands, we will be able to plant a new tree, a tree of hope. One we can dedicate to Juan Varela.

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