Reporter's Notebook: Behind the Headlines About Sheriff Joe Arpaio's Immigration Sweeps

This week the public radio program Making Contact features a story by Feet in Two Worlds reporter Valeria Fernández about the impact of an immigration raid on a family in Phoenix, Arizona. Valeria wrote the following reporter’s notebook about her experiences covering this story. You can listen to the story pressing “play” below or to find a station near you that carries the program click here.

[audio:http://media.libsyn.com/media/radioproject/MakingCon_091021_Ax.mp3]
Sandra hugs her daughter Katherine, her mother Mercedes and her sister Griselda after being released by Customs and Immigration Enforcement.

Sandra hugs her daughter Katherine, her mother Mercedes and her sister Griselda after being released by Customs and Immigration Enforcement. (Photo: V. Fernández - Click for more.)

PHOENIX, Arizona — When I arrived at Katherine Figueroa’s house, it had only been two days since her parents –both undocumented immigrants– were arrested during a raid by Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies at the Phoenix car wash where they both worked.

Kathy is an outspoken 9-year-old who makes friends easily. She welcomes people with her easy smile, even those she has just met. She was born in the U.S. and like many children of undocumented parents she has lived in constant fear that her parents could be deported.

I knew this wasn’t going to be an ordinary story. It was going to be one I would follow for months, and very closely every week.

It’s the story behind news reports that people in the Phoenix area have grown accustomed to: another sweep, another immigration raid in Maricopa County. It is about what happens to communities and families impacted by a crackdown that has made Arizona ground zero in a divisive national debate over immigration.

It was a challenge at first to gain the trust of Katherine’s family, so they would allow me to follow their story. When the sheriff announces a “crime suppression sweep” or a raid at a business, immigrant communities hold their breath. Sometimes his deputies go into neighborhoods to execute search warrants for workers.

But Kathy’s family opened their homes to me at this difficult time.

Through the process, I witnessed something I hadn’t seen in other cases. This family was truly united in the midst of a tragedy. It was not only them, but the community around them. The detention of Kathy’s parents, Carlos and Sandra, wasn’t just felt by this single family. It was a hardship the community owned.

Katherines mother Sandra spent three months in jail accused of using forged documents to work in a carwash. (Photo: A.J Alexander)

Katherine's mother Sandra spent three months in jail accused of using forged documents to work in a carwash. (Photo: A.J Alexander)

The women in Kathy’s family started reaching out and organizing fundraising events. Ironically the fundraisers were car washes. They needed to cover the cost of attorney’s fees. And in an already tough economy, they had to pitch in to pay the mortgage on Kathy’s parents’ house. Another expense was to buy food for Carlos and Sandra in jail, so they didn’t have to eat Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s 35-cent meals.

But they did more than just that. They got involved with a neighborhood group called the Phoenix Repeal Coalition and started talking to their neighbors about the need to be prepared for future sweeps.

The raid empowered them to do something, when previously they had been scared to act.

I remember one morning I stopped by Griselda’s house. She’s Kathy’s aunt who took care of her while her parents were detained. After talking for a while, I noticed all her beautiful furniture was gone: her dining room table –which looked brand new–, her couches.

“We sold them,” she said. “I couldn’t sell my sister’s things, that’s for her to decide.”

For “Grandma” Mercedes, Sandra’s mother, it was a struggle just to go to court to see the proceedings involving her daughter. To her, it was intimidating and hard to understand.

Katherine became an advocate for children her age facing the same situation and she was interviewed by the media on several occasions and also led a march. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

Katherine became an advocate for children her age facing the same situation and she was interviewed by the media on several occasions and also led a march. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

Because of the influx of undocumented immigrants detained by the sheriff’s office, the court had to set a special date to make a Spanish interpreter available.

The day of Sandra’s plea hearing, there were at least 20 other defendants, hands and legs shackled, sitting in the jury box because there wasn’t enough room to accommodate all of them elsewhere.

After three months in jail, Sandra pleaded guilty to the lowest possible charge of “impersonating a legal worker.”

When she was done, she sat back in the jury box and the proceedings continued with other defendants.

Mercedes didn’t want to leave the courtroom. She stood still, staring at her daughter with tears in her eyes for two more hours. That was the only time she got to see Sandra because, being undocumented herself, she is banned from the county jails.

In Arizona there’s a state law that sanctions businesses which knowingly hire undocumented workers. Arpaio’s office received a tip that the car wash was doing just that, but after the raid it didn’t bring charges against the employers. Instead, it only arrested the workers.

Carlos and Sandra were at work the morning they were detained. They were wearing the purple shirts of Lindstrom’s Car Wash. They had worked there for ten years, and even though the business owners were never tried for hiring undocumented labor, the couple didn’t resent them.

“They’ve always been very understanding to us,” said Sandra in an interview at the jail. She was wearing a mandatory black-and-white striped uniform.

The Phoenix Repeal Coalition is a grassroots movement formed to help families deal with the aftermath of raids and empower them to bring changes to their communities. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

The Phoenix Repeal Coalition is a grassroots movement formed to help families deal with the aftermath of raids and empower them to bring changes to their communities. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

The next time I saw her she was wearing her purple shirt from the car wash. She had been released in her work clothes. But instead of her sneakers, she wore a pair of thin flip-flops.

“These are not mine,” she said. “They belong to another woman in the jail. She was going to be deported at the border, just in these. So I decided to give her my tennis shoes.”

On one occasion, Kathy’s family organized a fund-raising volleyball tournament at a park.

I sat and chatted with Kathy. She had been outspoken on TV, and even called on President Obama in a YouTube video to do something to stop Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s immigration raids.

Did she think a little girl talking could make a difference, I asked.

“Sure it can,” she said. “It can make a big difference.”

The following morning I got a frantic call from Griselda: Kathy’s mother was about to be released from immigration custody. A week later, her father was released from detention as well.

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