PHOENIX, Arizona – Celia Alejandra Alvarez, a former undocumented worker detained in a workplace raid, is accusing the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office of negligence and mistreatment in a federal lawsuit. The lawsuit joins a long list of legal actions against Sheriff Joe Arpaio –currently under a criminal grand jury investigation for abuse of power– and comes less than a week after he defiantly announced he will train 881 of his deputies to enforce immigration laws.
Alvarez’s attorneys filed the case before the U.S. District Court of Arizona on February 11. That was exactly a year after she was arrested with 60 co-workers at landscaping contractor Handyman Maintenance Inc. (HMI) for working with false documents.
“I’m not interested in the money I could get out of this,” Alvarez, 32, told Feet in 2 Worlds. “What I want is to denounce the abuse, cruelty and inhumanity of the way in which we are treated by Arpaio.”
In the lawsuit, Alvarez alleges deputies wearing ski masks found her hiding, “lifted her off her feet, and slammed her face into a wall,” causing her injuries on her face, jaw and teeth. A deputy allegedly hit her hard with a clipboard for trying to speak to another detainee. During the three months she spent in detention, Alvarez claims that she didn’t receive proper medical treatment or medicine for the resulting pain.
“He is going to go after more people and that is why we can’t remain silent,” she said. “He should train his deputies so they know they are not supposed to mistreat people.”
Arpaio’s recent decision to escalate his immigration crackdown –his deputies arrested 35 people Tuesday– has become the target of criticism by legal scholars that argue he is operating outside the scope of the law in trying to play the role of the federal government.
In October, the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) revoked part of the agreement –known as 287 (g) for the legal provision that permits it– that allowed 160 Maricopa County deputies to enforce immigration laws. But the sheriff has remained defiant ever since.
“We are going to continue our enforcement,” he said during a recent press conference. “My deputies can enforce the illegal immigration laws without the 287 (g) agreement.”
Arpaio also claims he can continue to use Arizona state laws to go after workers, which is what happened in Alvarez’s case.
The HMI sweep was part of Arpaio’s controversial enforcement of Arizona’s employer sanctions law.
The State Legislature passed that law to investigate companies that knowingly hire undocumented labor. But the Sheriff’s and Maricopa County Attorney’s offices have used it to arrest workers on criminal charges of identity theft for using false documents to work.
Alvarez, the mother of four U.S. citizens, worked under the false name of Francisca Perez Mendoza. She worked for three years at HMI, picking up trash for $6 an hour. The company had a contract with Maricopa County for over ten years: some of the services it provided included landscaping at county buildings, including Arpaio’s jails.
Through her cleaning job, Alvarez became familiar with the outside of the Estrella jail for women. She never expected that one day she would find herself inside its walls.
She describes the experience both as traumatic and humiliating.
She said on arrival she was forced to strip in front of male guards. She had to take off the garments she wore as a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints to put on the black and white stripes uniform used in the jail.
Alvarez regrets that she was separated from Daniel, her youngest son, who was three months old and breastfeeding at the time of her arrest.
“What happened marked me for a lifetime,” she said, “but it also hurt my children.”
Claims of mistreatment and negligence by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office have resulted in over $40 million in settlements and legal fees to victims and families, according to county records.
Another lawsuit filed last week by Armando Nido, a U.S. citizen, alleges sheriff deputies ran him over with a patrol vehicle during a traffic stop outside his home.
Arpaio’s office didn’t return calls regarding the recent lawsuits.
This is the second time the agency is sued in connection to the HMI raid. Last August, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) filed a lawsuit claiming that Julian Mora, 66, a permanent legal resident, and his son Julio, 19, had been improperly detained.
They both were driving towards the company, where Julian worked, when vehicles from the sheriff’s office cut them off 100 yards from HMI. The deputies zip-tied them and transported them to the site and made them wait for three hours, according to the lawsuit. They were not allowed to use the restroom.
ACLU has also sued Arpaio on behalf of U.S. citizens and a tourist who alleged they were racially profiled. Last week, a federal judge imposed sanctions on Arpaio’s office for destroying evidence in connection with this lawsuit.
Many things have changed in Alvarez’s life since the raid on HMI a year ago. On September, she pleaded guilty to one count of criminal impersonation of a legal worker. She was able to obtain a work permit as she fights a process to remove her from the country.
Now she works as an assistant nurse caring for an elder woman.
“It’s hard for me to forget that dark day in which I was arrested,” she said. “Many things have changed in my life, I really can’t stand the sight of seeing the sheriff’s patrols, but this also has opened the doors to a new life.”