At age nine, U.S.-born Kathy Figueroa became the public face of hundreds of children impacted by immigration raids and family separation in Arizona. In a video in YouTube she pleaded with President Barack Obama for the release of her parents.
It was a bold move for a young child who was backed up by an extended family of undocumented immigrants, who had lived in the shadows at a time when immigration raids were taking place in neighborhoods and workplaces on an everyday basis.
Four years later, a turn of events has the now 13-year-old going from fear and uncertainty to thinking about what dress she will wear to her QuinceaÃ±era.
Carlos and Sandra Figueroa had been in deportation proceedings since 2009 when Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies arrested them in an immigration sweep at a local carwash in Phoenix.
But this week, the family got unexpected news: U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) closed their deportation case.
The decision is the latest in a series of cases that the federal agency has decided to close, ending deportation proceedings against dozens of undocumented immigrants who were arrested in Arizona’s immigration raids.
“After conducting a comprehensive review of the Figueroas’ immigration case, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has chosen to exercise prosecutorial discretion in this matter,” authorities said Monday in a statement.
“There’s still hope, that even the most difficult cases can be resolved,” said Sandra Figueroa, 38, from her home, just a few hours after she got the news.
ICE was responding to a special request by Delia Salvatierra, an immigration attorney who recently took the Figueroas’ case. Salvatierra has been challenging the way local prosecutors are enforcing state laws: They have been charging undocumented workers with felony identity theft. If convicted, these undocumented immigrants would have a felony on their criminal record, something that could hurt their changes at legalization.
“ICE chose to do the right thing,” said Salvatierra about this week’s decision to close the case. “Maricopa County is putting ICE in a very difficult position, because normally ICE doesn’t look into the conviction; they accept it at face value.”
Salvatierra believes that the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is suing Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) for racial profiling might have influenced their decision to close the case.
The lawsuit filed by the DOJ alleges that the Criminal Employment Squad (CES), a unit at the Sheriff’s Office, conducts “raids at worksites in an effort to arrest undocumented persons who are working without proper authorization.”
“These raids are conducted in a manner that results in the seizure of Latinos without reasonable suspicion,” according to the DOJ.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in May found Arpaio’s agency responsible for engaging in the racial profiling of Latinos – the result of a separate lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and National Immigration Law Center (NILC).
ICE would not comment on whether the recent ruling had any bearing on their decision to close this and other recent cases.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators,” said ICE in a prepared statement.
With the DOJ lawsuit still pending, Salvatierra argued that it would be inconsistent for the federal government to challenge the constitutionality of Arpaio’s raids and sweeps, and then deport the people who were impacted by them. Doing this, she said, could hurt their case in court.
Over the last few months, Salvatierra had 35 cases closed administratively, many of them involving state identity theft charges or sweeps conducted by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
She said the decision in the Figueroa case is not out of the ordinary, but it is more visible due to the public support the family has received, a petition campaign launched by the PUENTE movement and Kathy’s notoriety in the local media.
Carlos GarcÃa, director of PUENTE, said that engaging the public and putting a human face on these cases has helped close about 40 cases related to Arpaio’s immigration sweeps. PUENTE is now working to replicate this strategy in other deportation cases.
“We use the same strategy of telling the story and giving the public something to do so they can help,” said GarcÃa. “We show ICE that these are not criminals; we show that they’re families like the Figueroas.”
In June, PUENTE had at least 15 cases closed that involved people arrested by MCSO since February in the Sportex Apparel worksite raid.
The Figueroas’ deportation has been suspended indefinitely. Similar to young people who have received a deportation reprieve from the Obama administration through deferred action, the Figueroas will now be able to get a work permit -- though they won’t have a path to a green card.
Carlos Figueroa and his wife continue to work at the same car wash where they were arrested four years ago, which is now under new ownership. But with no path to a green card, Carlos Figueroa said, “We have to hope for immigration reform.”
Salvatierra believes that if Congress approves immigration reform this year, there should an exception for those impacted by the state immigration laws in Arizona whose purpose was to “uproot” people.
On Wednesday, the family will go in front of a federal immigration judge to confirm their consent for the case to be closed. The news comes as a great relief to the family, who have been losing sleep over the last few months in anticipation of the outcome of the judge’s ruling this week.
But they know that despite the publicity they’ve gotten, their story is not unique.
“There are other families like ours out there, that haven’t had the same opportunities and are being deported,” said Sandra Figueroa.
The Figueroas are part of the PUENTE movement that has been calling on ICE to grant prosecutorial discretion to families facing deportation, one case at a time. The group held a protest Tuesday morning outside the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to ask Sheriff Joe Arpaio to stop pursuing felony charges against undocumented immigrants who were arrested in Arpaio’s raids.
“Even if this is over, we’re going to continue fighting,” said Kathy.
PHOENIX – Daniel Rodriguez has been a part of the immigrant rights movement for as long as he can remember. He is gay, 27 and a law school student who hopes to become an immigration attorney one day.
Rodriguez has no doubt that LGBT rights should be part of comprehensive immigration reform. But these days he finds himself in an uncomfortable position.
“This is one of those times in which our community has to sacrifice something to have a win,” said Rodriguez.
In the coming days, the Senate could consider an amendment to the “Gang of Eight” immigration bill that would allow U.S. citizens to sponsor their same-sex partners to get a green card.
Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vermont, said on Tuesday that he would not introduce the amendment in the Senate Judiciary Committee, and intends to present it on the floor of the Senate instead.
LGBT rights advocates expressed disappointment that the amendment was withheld Tuesday, the last day of the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings.
“We are disappointed that Senator Schumer and his ‘Gang of 8’ colleagues accepted a false choice between LGBT families and immigration reform,” said Rachel Tiven, executive director of Immigration Equality Action Fund, “when the truth is that including LGBT families from the outset would have strengthened the bill.”
When Leahy announced the Uniting American Families Act (UAFA), the controversial amendment was criticized nationally. Some Republicans and Democrats said that adding protections for same-sex couples could kill the immigration reform bill.
But those who identify as both queer and undocumented, or “undocuqueer” as they call themselves, beg to differ.
“I agree that it could hurt immigration reform but I don’t think that it would kill it,” said Rodriguez, who is the chair of Somos America, a broad coalition of pro-immigrant groups in Arizona. “I think it’s important to discuss it.”
Still, Rodriguez says that if he knew that an amendment like this would kill immigration reform and he had the power to stop it, he wouldn’t support it.
“It’s hard to the point that it verges on being hypocritical,” he said. “We have built this idea of the American dream for equality, for us to be included. It’s really difficult being that we’ve done it for so long, that in order to get there it may be that we have to put somebody down.”
Dago Bailon, the Arizona chair of the Queer Undocumented Immigrant Project (QUIP), said the chances that the amendment might pass the committee or the Senate floor are slim.
“At the end of the day, I have to ask if I’m willing to sacrifice my family for this issue, at the end of the day if we can have immigration reform without this. We’ll still be OK,” said Bailon, 26.
Both Bailon and Rodriguez, who have work permits under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, have family members who are undocumented.
The argument against UAFA
President Obama has voiced his support for LGBT rights to be included in any comprehensive immigration bill. But Leahy's amendment has been sharply criticized by members of the Gang of Eight, including Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Florida.
“It will virtually guarantee that it won’t pass,” Rubio told Politico in an interview.
Two other Republican members of the group – John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina -- also made clear their opposition to the amendment, saying it would “kill the bill.”
Democrats like Chuck Schumer found themselves between a rock and a hard place. Schumer had voiced his support for gay rights in the past, but was unwilling to support the amendment, saying he believed that voting for it would cause the Republicans to walk away from the bill.
Opponents of UAFA argue that under the current immigration proposal, all undocumented people regardless of sexual orientation would be able to apply for a provisional status.
But immigration attorney and LGBT advocate Regina Jefferies explained there is a big difference between getting a temporary work permit and having a chance at a green card through marriage to a U.S. citizen. This last option is not open to same-sex couples, even if they are legally married in one of the 12 states that allows same-sex marriage.
“People are not aware of the special impact that being in a same-sex married couple has when one of the members is from another country,” she said. “We have too many U.S. citizens living in exile because they can’t sponsor their spouse.”
Bailon and other advocates believe that an upcoming U.S. Supreme Court decision on the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) could make a difference in allowing same-sex partners a chance at immigration equality like any other couple.
DOMA prevents the federal government from recognizing same-sex couples for various benefits including the right to sponsor a spouse for a green card.
If the U.S. Supreme Court overturns it this year, immigration attorneys argue that it will open the door for same-sex couples who were married in states where same-sex marriage is legal to have a chance to apply for a green card through marriage.
Yet, that could be an administrative nightmare, according to Jefferies.
“It will be an unbalanced treatment of LGBT couples,” she said. “You’ll have situations in which people from one state or another won’t be able to petition for a same-sex spouse but they’ll be able to do it in another place.”
Paying lip service to LGBT rights
Youth advocates for immigration and LGBT rights like Mohammad Abdollahi, a member of the National Immigrant Youth Alliance and founder of DreamActivist.org, say there’s a split within the movement when it comes to Leahy’s amendment.
While some national organizations support the amendment publicly, he said, behind closed doors there’s pushback against it.
“Their support is not real,” he said.
Furthermore, the argument that repealing DOMA would address the needs of gay couples nationally doesn’t work, according to Abdollahi.
Under UAFA, petitioners would have to prove that they are in a committed relationship as “permanent partners.”
“Marriage law is state by state; we still have to fight every single state,” he said. “If it passes in immigration reform, it’s a federal change, regardless of laws on marriage.”
A federal judge ruled on Friday that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio engaged in racial profiling of Latinos, violating their constitutional rights in his crackdown on illegal immigration. Civil rights advocates expect the ruling to send a chilling message to other law enforcement agencies that are planning to engage in immigration enforcement.
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- Luz Ruiz RascÃ³n is a determined woman, the kind who can hold back her tears while she talks about one of the most difficult choices she’s had to make: to stay in jail and fight for her innocence.
Her son’s leukemia diagnosis was one of the biggest challenges for her entire family, up until she was arrested eight months ago at her workplace and incarcerated.
The Maricopa County Attorney’s Office accused her of several counts of identity theft and forgery for allegedly working with false documents. But RascÃ³n, an undocumented immigrant, claims she’s never provided false paperwork.
Her case exposes the situation of hundreds of undocumented workers in Arizona who could face charges that would deny them a path to citizenship under immigration reform.
Proposed Reforms and the ‘Gang of Eight’
Proposed reforms would force the deportation of those with a record showing a felony or three misdemeanors. Immigrant advocates believe authorities are inflating minor charges for otherwise law-abiding immigrants to unfairly drive them out of the United States.
In Washington, D.C., a bipartisan group of senators called the “Gang of Eight” introduced an immigration reform package that has renewed hope for many but according to immigration experts will leave people like Luz outside. Conservative members of the bipartisan group are now calling for even tougher restrictions in the wake of last week’s Boston bombing.
The proposed “Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act” would grant a work permit to undocumented immigrants provided that they don’t have a criminal record.
In most of these cases, undocumented immigrants such as RascÃ³n, age 38, take a guilty plea for the felony identity theft charge so they can be released from jail. Many don’t know the dire consequences that decision will have for them.
But not RascÃ³n. She decided to take her case all the way to trial, if necessary, and has already spent eight months in jail. Her trial is set to begin on May 3. By a state law, known as Proposition 100, undocumented immigrants with serious charges--in her case six felony counts--don’t have a right to bail.
“I had my moments of frustration, desperation,” said RascÃ³n in an interview in Spanish at Estrella jail, the Maricopa County facility that houses women.
Prosecutors have offered her a guilty plea to a lower-level felony, but this is considered under immigration law a crime of “moral turpitude,” which would make her deportable.
Delia Salvatierra took on RascÃ³n’s case almost eight months ago, and decided to defend her pro bono. She had a stake in her fight too.
In recent years she started getting more and more cases where immigrants had a specific type of identity theft felony charge on their record that would make them deportable in the eyes of an immigration judge.
When she met RascÃ³n she advised her that taking the plea could not only mean her automatic deportation but also hurt her changes to be eligible for immigration reform.
Staying in jail since her arrest last Aug. 9 hasn’t been easy for RascÃ³n. She and four co-workers were caught in an immigration raid of her employer by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, under Sheriff Joe Arpaio. In jail, she found, there is no privacy, and there are frequent lock ups that require her to spend the entire day in her bed.
Maricopa County Jails have been scrutinized by the federal government resulting from a recent lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ). The suit contends that some Latino inmates are discriminated against due to their inability to speak English.
DOJ also alleges that in some instances the Sheriff’s immigration raids have discriminated against Latino workers.
This is one reason Salvatierra believes the federal government could provide an exception to these Arizona workers if immigration reform passes.
‘My Children Are Above Everything’
RascÃ³n has had her moments of doubt. “I say, ‘I’ll leave if they don’t want me in this country, nevermind,’” she admitted. “But at the same time, I say, ‘No, no, no.’ I can’t throw away 20 years of my life here.
She took a job at the GNC vitamin supply company 11 years ago, eventually being put in charge of packaging the product for shipping. She starting her shift at 5 a.m., and usually worked eight to 10 hours at the $14-an-hour job. “It was a heavy job, but I liked it,” she said.
Mainly, she said, “My children are above anything. They are the ones that move me to wait and keep fighting.”
Her children, Irving and Litzzy--both U.S. citizens--visit their mother in jail as much as twice a week.
Irving, 18, drives his younger sister to school every morning, after his dad is long gone to work as a day laborer. Irving goes to a community college in the evening to study computer science.
“I know I’m my mother’s son,” he said, alluding to her care when he was diagnosed with leukemia. He’s proud of her choice to fight the charges in jail.
RascÃ³n is concerned about making sure that Irving takes care of his health.
“Sometimes I don’t want them to come and see me,” she said in Spanish. “It is sad to see them and watch them walk away, and then wait for another visit.”
County Attorney Won’t Change Plea Offers
Since 2008, Arpaio’s office has conducted worksite raids under a state civil law aimed at cracking down on unlawful employers. But the Sheriff focused on arresting workers on felony charges of identity theft.
Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery asserts this charge is not immigration related but responds to an effort to fight the high volume of identity-theft crimes committed in the state.
RascÃ³n’s attorney, Salvatierra, counters, “I don’t believe they’ve committed the kind of offense that requires nine or 10 months in pretrial incarceration.”
Montgomery said his agency won’t modify the type of pleas he offers to people arrested in the raids. “We’re going to handle these cases the way we handle every other case, and I’m not going to pick out one group of people for special treatment. I’m not supposed to do that. That’s actually unconstitutional,” he stated in an interview.
The county attorney has come under fire by several pro-immigrant groups for claiming to support comprehensive immigration reform while continuing to prosecute undocumented workers on charges of identity theft.
“I feel he’s really after our folks and to me it's not really a criminal act--although the state has made it that,” said Rosie Lopez, founder of the Hispanic Community Forum. “These people are hard working people, they’re honest. They’ve never done anything wrong, and this is simply because they wanted to feed their families.”
Montgomery joined the Real Arizona Coalition, a bipartisan group including businesses, religious leaders and others to craft a platform for immigration reform that was released last December.
The platform, called the Solution to Federal Immigration Reform (SANE), recommends that undocumented immigrants have a path to citizenship provided that they don’t have a criminal record “other than individual identity violations.”
During a public panel at Arizona State University (ASU) last week, civil rights attorney Daniel Ortega recognized people with this type of charge won’t be able to be part of immigration reform unless groups lobby on their behalf.
Montgomery, who was on the panel, said he has “already provided all the support that I can” by contributing ideas for the SANE platform as far as who should qualify.
He said that his stance on the platform was that you “may necessarily have to look at exempting employment-related offenses to encourage enough people to come forward and make it worthwhile.”
Salvatierra, RascÃ³n’s attorney, said she was encouraged that there was more dialogue with the county attorney’s office and that he came out in support of comprehensive immigration reform.
She noted that prosecutors have a choice. For instance, they could offer a plea of solicitation of taking the identity of another, or solicitation to commit forgery.
“The Supreme Court is saying that you can take [immigration consequences] into consideration,” she said, when it comes to offering a plea.
She cited a 2010, U.S. Supreme Court decision, Padilla v. Kentucky, which determined that immigrants facing criminal charges have a right to be told of the immigration consequences if they decide to accept a plea.
The decision also says, “… informed consideration of possible deportation can only benefit both the State and noncitizen defendants during the plea-bargaining process. By bringing deportation consequences into this process, the defense and prosecution may well be able to reach agreements that better satisfy the interests of both parties.”
A Narrow Chance
Nationally groups like the National Immigration Law Center (NILC) have the joined CAMBIOcampaign – to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform that would include, among many issues, due process for undocumented immigrants.
They advocate for immigration judges to be allowed to take into consideration different factors before deporting someone who has a crime on his or her record.
But the current proposal from the congressional “Gang of Eight” offers little flexibility when it comes to being inclusive of people who might not have spent a day in jail, said Kamal Essaheb, an immigration attorney at NILC.
“DREAMers” (undocumented youth brought to the U.S. in childhood) would have a faster path to a green card under the current proposal. But they also would be subject to the same type of criminal barriers, Essaheb added.
“We’re going to fight to make sure as many people as possible are included,” he said.
Essaheb said it was true that the eight senators included provisions to exclude barring people with a crime on their record in connection with state immigration laws, such as Arizona’s SB 1070.
But he said it is likely that wouldn’t extend to other enforcement, such as the case of people charged with identity theft.
Essaheb said that the lack of federal immigration reform has led to a proliferation of state laws that would exclude people depending on where they live.
“We don’t want Sheriff Arpaio deciding who should get legalized or who shouldn’t,” he said. “We want to make legalization accessible regardless of where you are or whether you live in a state that heavily criminalizes undocumented immigrants because of discriminatory policies.”
PHOENIX -- A citizen’s group called Respect Arizona filed paperwork at the Maricopa County Elections Department on Wednesday to initiate a recall effort against Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
The group would need to gather 335,317 signatures by May 30 of this year in order for the county to call a special election for the sheriff’s office.
Several Republican figures are at the center of the effort to recall Arpaio, who has been re-elected to his post six times since 1993. Williams James Fisher, the chairman of Respect Arizona and a Republican attorney, is expected to announce the recall effort at press conference Thursday morning.
Arpaio narrowly won re-election last November with 50.7 percent of the vote, after a strong voter registration campaign lead by Latinos took place countywide to oust him from office. His campaign war chest had over $8 million dollars, most of it coming from out of state.
Over the last five years, the self-proclaimed “America’s toughest” sheriff rose to notoriety due to his immigration sweeps in Latino neighborhoods and his raids in businesses that hire undocumented laborers.
Those actions put him at the crosshairs of civil rights lawsuits alleging racial profiling – one brought by the U.S. Department of Justice, and another filed by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) which is awaiting a federal judge ruling.
Arpaio has also been criticized for his role in misspending $100 million in taxpayer dollars from a jail tax fund that was used to conduct investigations on political enemies and on immigration enforcement, rather than on jails.
Another scandal, one that drove many Republican voters away from Arpaio during the last election, involved the mishandling of investigations of over 400 sexual crimes against children.
Arpaio was the target of a 5-year-long criminal investigation by the Department of Justice over alleged abuse of power, although that case was closed last year without any charges being filed.
The effort to recall Arpaio comes on the heels of a successful campaign in 2011 to recall Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, a Republican that sponsored SB 1070 – one of the most stringent state immigration laws in the country. Citizens for a Better Arizona (CBA), a bi-partisan group lead by Randy Parraz, a long time critical voice against Arpaio’s office, successfully collected over 70,000 signatures that were needed at the time to get Pearce to face a special election, in which he lost.
“These are citizens who are organizing under the name of Respect Arizona. They came together and they made a decision that they’re going to move forward with the recall of Sheriff Arpaio, and that effort officially was launched today with the filing,” said Parraz, who supports the group.
PHOENIX, AZ – Most undocumented immigrants in Arizona either can’t afford private health insurance or don’t qualify for state insurance programs for low-income families. As a result, many seek alternative ways of meeting their health care needs by tapping into an underground market for medications, including birth control pills.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Arizona politicians introduced bills last week to deny citizenship to infants born on U.S. soil to undocumented parents. A constitutional battle is brewing.
PHOENIX, Ariz. -- In November, Latino Republicans in Arizona will be faced with a dilemma: Vote for the GOP, which has led attacks on their community, or vote against their party.