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.

"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.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons