Civil Society, Crime & Justice, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

US: Children Call for End to Immigration Raids

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, Aug 14 2009 (IPS) - It has been two months since Katherine Figueroa has shared a meal with her parents. Both of them are undocumented workers that were arrested in a workplace raid last June by Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office here.

While President Barack Obama set forth new federal guidelines to focus on employers that break the law by hiring undocumented workers, local authorities in Maricopa County are going in the opposite direction – increasing the crackdown on employees.

Figueroa, a 9 year-old U.S. citizen marched Aug. 7 with dozens of other children to call for an end to the raids that are separating families. Since 2008, deputy sheriffs conducted 22 raids and arrested 264 workers.

To calls of “Obama, Obama we want our parents back,” the children walked in the hot Arizona summer from the jail were their parents are detained to the offices of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, in downtown Phoenix.

“He needs to stop the raids, is not fair what he’s doing to people,” said Figueroa who held a cardboard sign with the shape of a colourful orange and black butterfly. The Monarch butterfly – whose migration across Mexico and the U.S. is necessary for its survival – was the theme of the march.

“I want to tell Sheriff Joe Arpaio to let my parents alone and let them free. And get the people that are working out, and [instead] get the people that are killing others and robbing,” she added.

Figueroa was playing at an aunt’s house with a friend when she overheard the news of a raid in a carwash on TV. She ran to see the images and saw her father handcuffed with plastic zip ties. It broke her heart.

Her parents Sandra and Carlos Figueroa were among the 25 detained that day. They are facing identity theft charges for using false documents to obtain employment. They could be in jail up to six months until they have a trial, and afterwards face up to 2 years of probation.

Either way the result would be their deportation to Mexico.

Arizona has one of the toughest employers’ sanctions laws in the nation. Employers who are caught knowingly hiring undocumented workers can get their license suspended and be forced to shut their businesses down at the second offense.

But, since the law took effect in 2008 it has only been used to arrest employees.

Arizona is unique in many ways because it has gained ground as a state in the enforcement of immigration laws that are considered to be the purview of the federal government.

Recently, the U.S. Supreme Court established that immigrant workers cannot be charged with identity theft if they did not knowingly steal the identification number they used to work. But this does not impact Arizona, which has its own identity theft laws.

“Identity theft is a serious crime. Despite the fact that it seems the President of the United States and the U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security will shift their focus to only go after employers, I will continue to pursue all illegal aliens in business establishments who take away valuable jobs from U.S. citizens,” said Arpaio in a recent press release.

Workplace raids in Arizona are leaving immigrant families – with children often times born in the U.S. – in dire need of legal help and financial support, but there is no infrastructure to help them.

“I’m thinking how I’m going to buy diapers for my daughter,” said Maria, a 20-year old undocumented mother of an 8 months old baby whose husband was detained in one raid. Maria who is four months pregnant asked for her name to be kept anonymous.

“There wasn’t a real motive to arrest them. They were simply working to feed their children,” she said.

Some communities are organising carwashes and yard sales to fundraise. Others are finding help in local churches that are offering them a place to meet and organise from the grassroots.

“A lot of the families are not prepared for who would take care of the children,” said Sarah Myklebust, an activist from the Phoenix Repeal Coalition, a community group that is providing orientation and organising the immigrant families.

Another problem is that the families do not have enough to pay for legal fees, and the court has a lack of translators to help them understand the process, she said.

“There’s a real shortage of immigration lawyers that just can take on cases,” Myklebust stressed.

And then there are just the basic needs.

“It goes down to can’t afford food and rent, daily needs,” she said. “These are pregnant women who have been relying on their husband and don’t have enough to pay for ultrasound, or day to day things,” she said.

For the Figueroa’s it has been quite tough. The family members sold living room furniture to get money to pay part of the attorney’s fees for those detained.

The legal process has been confusing to say the least.

“I’m a little sad and confused,” said Sandra Figueroa during an interview inside the Estrella Jail, a detention facility for women. “The attorneys told me that if I wanted to be released I had to accuse my boss.” Figueroa said she received poor legal help. At one point one attorney suggested she got married to a U.S. citizen to get her legal documents, she recalled.

Arpaio’s worksite raids have not occurred without protest and controversy.

“I was for three months in jail and I never got medical attention,” said Celia Alejandra Alvarez, who was detained in February in a raid at a landscaping company. She could not breast feed her child. “He’s not only hurting us, he’s hurting our children.”

Her daughter Heidi Rubi Portugal – a U.S. citizen – joined other children in the march.

“I want him to stop stealing children’s smiles,” said the 11 year old. “I think Arpaio should be deported to Mexico so he can see how people suffer in Mexico, how hard it is for people to cross. It never occurs to him to ask: Why did you come? How many smiles you left behind.”

That it’s unlikely to happen. But there are some positive signs that the children’s wishes may come true.

Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice over alleged civil rights violations.

America’s self-proclaimed toughest sheriff has attracted a lot of controversy by arresting immigrant drivers for minor offenses in Latino neighbourhoods. He has the largest force in the nation deputised to enforce federal immigration laws under a memorandum of agreement with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS).

His federal powers are currently on the line due to a recent directive issued by the Secretary of Homeland Security, Janet Napolitano. The new guidelines for the so-called ‘287(g) programme’ participants mandate local police to focus on the apprehension of criminal immigrants and not those whose are illegally in the country.

Salvador Reza, an organiser from PUENTE – a local movement that is calling for an end to Arpaio’s practices – said he hoped the recent march “would touch his heart” provided that he had one.

“This is a form of child abuse,” said Buffalo Rick Galeener, a supporter of Sheriff Joe Arpaio who was among the few that counter protested the children’s march. “These parents are separating themselves from their children, when they could take them back to Mexico.”

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