Immigrant Family Torn Apart in Arizona Raid

Sheriff Arpaio has arrested 248 immigrants in raids allegedly aimed at unlawful hiring, but no employer has been penalized.

PHOENIX, Arizona — Katherine Figueroa was playing outside her home Saturday morning when she overheard the news coming from a nearby TV. The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office had just raided the car wash where her father and mother worked.

She rushed to see her dad’s image on television. His expression looked worried, his hands were tied with plastic cuffs.

Her eyes filled with tears, the 9-year-old made a plea to President Barack Obama to return her parents home in a video produced by Arizona activists and reports on the Univision network.

“I want my parents back, is not fair for me to be alone,” said Katherine who was born in the U.S. and is a U. S. citizen.

Katherine Figueroa saw her father's immigration arrest on TV. (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

Katherine Figueroa saw her father's immigration arrest on TV. (Photos: Valeria Fernández)

Listen to Katherine in an interview with Feet in 2 Worlds:


Although the federal government has announced changes to its policies regarding work-site immigration raids, not much has changed in the Phoenix area, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is implementing what critics call “his own brand of law.”

“The message I have for everybody is that we’re going to continue to arrest those that violate the ID theft laws, but also if they’re illegal,” said Arpaio during a press conference outside the car wash on Saturday.

The owner of the Lindstrom Family Auto Wash did not respond to an interview request.

The arrest of 14 workers in the small business in central Phoenix is the seventh raid to take place since Arpaio started enforcing a new state law aimed at cracking down on employers who knowingly hire undocumented labor. Over all, at least 248 workers have been arrested and most of them face identity theft charges for working with fake documents.

But no employer has been penalized. The state law includes suspension of a business license at the first offense and revocation of the license if they are caught again.

The consequences for workers are life changing. Family separation and deportation with a felony on their record are the norm.

On Monday, Katherine’s mother Sandra Figueroa, 33, cried inside the Estrella Jail visitation room, worried about her daughter’s well-being and her own future.

“We were just making a living, we weren’t committing any crimes,” said Figueroa, the only woman arrested during the raid. She had worked at the car wash for nine years, her husband Carlos for eleven.

The morning of the raid she was vacuuming a car when Carlos came rushing to tell her she needed to hide. But deputies had circled the premises and found her shortly after.

“I never thought the sheriff would raid our workplace,” she said, adding officers were rude and constantly yelled at those arrested, almost running a worker over with one of their vehicles.

Figueroa remembers that two days before the sweep, two Hispanic men came with cars that had small stickers from the sheriff’s office.

“Maybe they where coming to investigate,” she said.

Katherine with her grandmother Mercedes Hernández (Photo: Valeria Fernández)

Katherine with her grandmother Mercedes Hernández.

For undocumented relatives of those arrested the raid creates another obstacle because they’re not allowed to visit their detained relatives.

Arpaio’s policies prohibit undocumented people from entering his jails.

The Figueroas’ relatives are desperate and heartbroken.

“They’re catching people like birds in their nest, which are the workplaces. That’s the truth,” said Mercedes Hernández, Katherine’s maternal grandmother.

Hernández, 63, denounced the sheriff’s methods.

“Mr. Arpaio arrives with his weapons and his police and everything. Who can stand against him? Why doesn’t he go where there are shootings?” she said.

“But he doesn’t look for criminals. What he looks for is innocent people.”

Listen to Hernández (in Spanish):


Several other families have been impacted by the raid, and some are left without their sole breadwinner.

“We’re very sad not just for us, but for everybody else that had someone arrested. There’s a woman with a four-month baby. Mr. Arpaio doesn’t stop to think … Who is going to take care of this woman or who is going to help her,” said Griselda, Sandra Figueroa’s sister, who asked that her last name not be published. “What is going to happen to all these families who have been abandoned?”

Griselda is worried about what could happen to her sister while in detention since she’s heard stories in the news about jailers abusing prisoners.

“What worries me is that they’re going to jail, they’re going to take them where there are many criminals and we don’t know what will happen to my sister and brother in law in there. They’re innocent, the only sin they committed is coming to this country to work.”

Listen to Griselda (in Spanish):


“He’s enforcing his own brand of law. … Can’t anyone do anything?” asked Andrés, Griselda’s husband.

Listen to Andrés (in Spanish):


The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice, and reportedly the FBI, for alleged civil rights violations and racial profiling.

As Arpaio vowed to continue cracking down on illegal immigration, human rights activists worried about a wave of laws making their way through the Arizona legislature that could further criminalize undocumented immigrants.

Dan Pochoda, lead attorney of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona, said some of the bills might be challenged in court because immigration enforcement is the responsibility of the federal government. Yet the challenges are not always successful, as was the case with the state’s employer sanctions law.

A recent U.S. Supreme Court decision established that immigrant workers can’t be charged with identity theft if they did not knowingly steal the identification number they used to work. But this doesn’t impact Arizona, which has its own identity theft laws, Pochoda said.

Migrants charged with identity theft spend up to three months in detention if they choose to go to trial. Those who plead guilty are later turned over to federal immigration authorities.

Those who are deported with a felony –as would be the Figueroas’ case– don’t have a chance to adjust their immigration status in the future even if an immediate family member is a U.S. citizen.

Inside her aunt’s trailer, Katherine has built a little altar with pictures of her mother and father. She prays and hopes they’ll be released.

“Mom, I love you,” she wrote her in a letter. “I’ll do anything to get you out of there.”

Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist in Arizona.

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.