How Arizona cheats immigration reform

Activists are denouncing state lawmakers for charging immigrants with felonies to ensure their deportation

Published March 17, 2013 1:00PM (EDT)

This piece originally appeared in New America Media.

PHOENIX--Ivon Matamoros has been packing most of her baby daughter’s clothes and blankets to start a reluctant journey back to Mexico. Matamoros, 24, could be among hundreds of youth who qualify for a deportation reprieve under President Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). But she didn’t apply.
New America media

Matamoros didn’t think she would qualify because she has a felony on her record -- for working with false documents as a cashier and buser at a Pei Wei chain restaurant.

An immigration judge told her this was a “crime of moral turpitude” and that she would have to leave. He gave her a date to do so, willingly: March 21.

“The judge said it reflected badly on my character,” said Matamoros. “If I didn’t have that felony, I would have been able to qualify for DACA.”

Groups Denounce Raids, Prosecutions

As discussions ramp up in Congress to come up with a federal comprehensive immigration reform bill, pro-immigrant groups and attorneys in Arizona are denouncing the raids and prosecutions of workers like Matamoros, which could hurt their chances of becoming documented residents.

Most immigration reform proposals exclude people with criminal records; millions of workers currently using false documents to work on the United States could lose out if they get arrested.

Matamoros was among hundreds of unauthorized workers in Maricopa County who ended up in deportation proceedings as a result of business worksite raids carried out by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Workers in her situation are being charged with multiple counts of identity theft, typically a Class 4 felony, and offered plea bargains to a lower charge, such as “taking the identity of another,” a Class 6 violation.

“Maricopa County is the only county that is doing these raids. They don’t have to do these raids--that is immigration’s job,” said Carlos Garcia, director of Puente, a pro-immigrant and human rights organization in Phoenix.

Puente organized a march this week to protest Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery for prosecuting these cases and charging undocumented workers with felonies that can lead to their deportation.

“Immigration reform starts at home,” Garcia stated. “If we don’t stop Arpaio and Bill Montgomery, the people from the 71 raids are never going to be able to obtain citizenship or any other legal status in the country because of the felonies.”

“Criminalizing the Community”

In February, the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and a group of immigration attorneys denounced Montgomery, alleging that he engages in discrimination for bringing charges against undocumented immigrants and essentially ensuring their deportation.

“This office will not engage in any sort of systematic effort to ensure people are deported from the U. S.,” said Montgomery in response during a press conference.

The county attorney acknowledged that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) provided his prosecutors their customary training on the types of charges that could have an immigration-related consequence for people.

Immigrant rights advocates argue that Montgomery could choose whether or not to offer plea deals that won’t have an immigration-related impact, but claim that he is deciding not to do so.

Montgomery, who has expressed support for SANE (Solution to Federal Immigration Reform), a comprehensive platform developed by the Real Arizona Coalition, said he is simply following the law.

But Garcia countered, “Bill Montgomery is speaking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one side he’s supporting the SANE platform and on the other, he is criminalizing the community. If he’s doing this, he is just as bad as Arpaio.”

Recently, Los Abogados Hispanic Bar Association asked Montgomery to explain what the group calls “unequal treatment” toward undocumented Latino workers.

In a letter to Montgomery, Los Abogados Board President Gaetano Testini wrote, “Over the last year, we have witnessed a marked change in the charges filed, the plea offers made and the negotiations entered into, with respect to this class of noncitizens.” The letter goes on to claim that Montgomery’s office “purposely provides plea offers that guarantee a noncitizen’s deportation from the United States and denies them their day in Immigration Court.”

Targeting Workers, Not Employers 

The worksite raids began in 2008, after Arizona passed an employer-sanctions law meant to impose civil penalties on companies that knowingly hire undocumented workers. But Sheriff Arpaio and former County Attorney Andrew Thomas decided to use the new law to crack down on workers using false documents and charge them with identity theft.

Thomas said at the time that this was a strategy to ensure that a criminal record would keep undocumented immigrants from ever becoming U.S. citizens.

When Thomas –who was eventually disbarred in connection to alleged ethic violations--left office to run for the state’s attorney general, the interim county attorney Rick Romney discontinued the prosecutions.

Montgomery, though, began prosecuting people arrested in Arpaio’s sweeps, as soon as he took office, he said, in order to fight identity theft.

Although hundreds of workers were arrested in the 71 Maricopa County worksite raids, only three employers faced civil sanctions for knowingly hiring undocumented workers.

“I have to deal with these cases as I have them,” Montgomery said. “If I started seeking different resolutions just because I wanted to improve relationships with a particular part of the community, that would be the worst example of prosecutorial discretion I can imagine.”

When the raids started five years ago, many immigrant families didn’t know about the legal ramifications of pleading guilty to a Class 6 felony charge.

In some instances, undocumented immigrants who find themselves in deportation proceedings can apply for the cancellation of their removal, if they’ve been in the United States for more than 10 years and have a relative who is a U.S. citizen.

But that isn’t possible if they have a felony charge from working with false documents, explained immigration attorney Dori Zavala.

“When it comes to immigration, they say they don’t qualify because they have this crime of moral turpitude,” said Zavala.

Challenge to Felony Charges

Last year Zavala and her colleague, attorney Delia Salvatierra, decided to take their battle to the criminal justice courts by challenging these felony charges.

Zavala currently represents Miguel Venegas, an embroidery factory worker arrested with a dozen others on Feb. 8. Unlike Matamoros, Venegas now has a chance to fight against the felony charges.

“He is willing to do anything he can, because he’s been living here for 20 years,” said Venegas’ wife, Julia Ojeda, who joined the protest with the Puente group.

Ojeda said her husband was the main breadwinner for her and their three U.S.-born children.

“Sometimes the kids catch me off guard when they ask me when their dad will be released,” she said.

Zavala explained that the conditions in county jails for many of these workers, who have never been in a jail before, and their inability to afford an attorney often deter them from asserting their innocence.

“I took the plea because I couldn’t be in that awful jail anymore,” said Matamoros. “I didn’t know what was going to happen later.”

Several immigration attorneys have told Matamoros that her case is a “lost cause,” she said. She has accepted that she’ll have to go back to Mexico and leave her husband, Luis, behind so that he can support the family.

Matamoros was arrested on March 4, 2011, the day before her wedding was supposed to take place. She was finally able to get married four months later when she was released after paying bail of over $12,000—all of their savings.

Arguing to Stop Deportation

As an attorney, Zavala said immigrants like Matamoros have few options once an immigration judge orders the person’s voluntary removal.

But Zavala argues that ICE should grant people affected by these immigration sweeps a stay of their deportation, considering that the Department of Justice (DOJ) is suing the sheriff for alleged racial profiling involving traffic stops and worksite raids.

In its December 2011 findings, DOJ said the Criminal Employment Squad (CES) from the sheriff’s office “routinely raid businesses in a manner that harms innocent Latino workers.”

DOJ found, “Specifically, CES's deputies typically detain and investigate the immigration status of all employees at a raided worksite, whether or not the employees are listed in the warrant authorizing the raid.”

Zavala argues, “ICE should say any convictions coming from that should be considered differently.”

Matamoros is worried about returning to a country she hasn’t been in for almost a decade.
She worries about the violence in Mexico and about the type of health care her American daughter will get.

She wishes she’d had a chance to continue her education, rather than having to go to work.

If she’d gone to school instead of working, she wouldn’t have been arrested and charged with using false documents -- a felony that prevents her from being eligible for DACA now or any kind of regularization of her status in the future.

“We were just working to get ahead,” she said. “Families are being separated every day because of this.”

By Valeria Fernandez

MORE FROM Valeria Fernandez

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

Arizona Crime Immigration Reform Law New America Media Undocumented Immigrants