Crime & Justice, Gender, Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

RIGHTS-US: Women Migrants Describe Abuse in County Jails

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, May 5 2009 (IPS) - Broken arms, dislocated jaws, intimidation and vulgarities are part of the daily routine immigrant woman experience in Arizona’s Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) jails, human and civil rights organisations charge.

Close to 3,000 people marched to denounce abuse and intimidation of immigrant inmates by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in the border state of Arizona.  Credit: Nick Oza

Close to 3,000 people marched to denounce abuse and intimidation of immigrant inmates by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in the border state of Arizona. Credit: Nick Oza

MCSO is currently under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department over alleged abuses of a section of immigration law known as 287(g) that allows the federal government to deputise local police to enforce immigration law.

“The abuse of these powers within the jails is worse than in the street,” said Salvador Reza, an organiser with the pro-immigrant group Puente that has been monitoring the alleged mistreatment. “If we were able to stop torture in Guantanamo Bay, we should be able to do that in Maricopa County,” he added.

On May 2, Reza’s group organised a six-mile march to protest this situation from the offices of the sheriff in downtown Phoenix to the Estrella jail, a detention facility for women.

The march was in response to claims of abuse by an immigrant woman whose arm was allegedly broken by sheriff’s office guards, and a letter by 13 others who also denounced mistreatment within the same jail. At the protest, 43 women inmates launched a hunger strike to make their point.

“Please help us, we’re in a tunnel without end, treated like dogs,” reads the letter obtained by Respect/Respet, a local organisation that documents human and civil rights abuses. Among the signatories is an immigrant woman who claims the sheriff’s deputies broke her jaw during a workplace raid.

So far, Maria del Carmen Garcia-Martinez, an alleged undocumented immigrant, has been the only one to come out publicly with her story. She said that on Mar. 11, six guards at the Estrella jail broke her left arm when they forced her to put her fingerprint on a form she did not want to sign. The document was intended to transfer her custody from the jail to immigration authorities. Garcia, 46, did not receive treatment for her injury until 20 hours later.

She had been accused of showing a false driver license to the police. Prosecutors eventually dropped the charges.

“I know I’m not the only one, I met other women there who have gone through terrible things,” Garcia told IPS.

Lt. Brian Lee, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, said her allegations are currently under investigation. But he also stated that his deputies can use force to obtain a fingerprint on immigration documents that are required as part of their work with the federal government.

On May 1, the sheriff’s office received a visit by officials from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security as part of the investigation. Human and civil rights groups are pushing for the revocation of Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio’s 287(g) agreement with the federal government.

“Anybody can accuse me of anything like they are doing. I feel very comfortable with my position. We have nothing to hide,” said Arpaio. “I’m very comfortable with what I’m doing and we’re going to continue to do our job.”

Despite criticism, Arpaio – who has became a national face for the crackdown on illegal immigration – remains more popular among voters in Arizona than U.S President Barack Obama. A recent poll by Rasmussen Reports shows 68 percent of state voters have a favourable view of Arpaio, compared with a 53 approval rating for Obama.

“He’s arresting all the illegals. He’s the only elected politician that we have in our state that is really willing to enforce the law,” said Martha Payan, who is a member of American Citizens United, a group that opposes an amnesty for undocumented immigrants.

“The more influx of illegals that keep coming in here, Americans are losing jobs and wages are going down,” she said.

Unlike federal immigration detention centres, the jails administered by Arpaio are designed for people accused of serious crimes who are awaiting trial. But many undocumented immigrants end up in his custody for minor offences while they wait to be transferred to immigration authorities.

“The sad reality is that people are brutally mistreated in these jails,” said criminal defence attorney and pro-immigrant activist Antonio Bustamente. “The vast majority cannot tell anybody because they get deported.”

The attorney said he is aware of at least three people who claim they were assaulted and put in isolation when they refused to answer questions pertaining to their citizenship.

This is not the first time allegations of abuse within Arpaio’s jails have come to light over the 16 years that the sheriff has been in office.

The best-known case involved the death of inmate Scott Norberg in a jail-restraining chair in 1996. His family settled a lawsuit for 8.25 million dollars against the sheriff’s office.

Nor is it the first time Arpaio’s office has been investigated. The Justice Department started an investigation on 1995 that resulted in an agreement two years later to eliminate the use of restraining chairs and other tactics.

In 1997, Amnesty International condemned the mistreatment of pre-trial inmates in these facilities.

But this is the first time the accusations underscore the possible misuse of powers given by the federal government to enforce immigration laws within the jails.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has said the use of the agreement in this way has been an effective tool to remove undocumented immigrants from the country. In the past two years the sheriff’s office turned over 24,000 undocumented immigrants to immigration authorities that were detected by his jailers.

A recent report by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), an investigative arm of Congress, said that ICE is not supervising the 287(g) programmes properly.

Another study by Justice Strategies, a national think tank, complained that local law enforcement has used these powers to arrest immigrants for minor traffic offences rather than to focus on serious criminals.

Janet Napolitano, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, said recently during a visit to Nogales, Arizona that her agency is conducting a review of the 287(g) clause. Napolitano introduced this programme when she was Arizona’s governor and has been a supporter of its use to detect undocumented immigrants in the jails.

“She thought she could set an example in Arizona and use this horrible example and stretch it across the nation,” said Zack De la Rocha, an activist best known as the former lead singer of Rage Against the Machine. The artist, who resides in Los Angeles, has joined the growing protest movement in Arizona.

“People are proving here that time and time again, wherever 287(g) is implemented the same horrible abuses occur: racial profiling, the stripping away of constitutional rights that protect both the undocumented and the documented,” he argued.

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