It was obvious Veronica Perez had been crying. Her eyes were red and puffy as she stood in front of a microphone to speak Tuesday morning in Phoenix.
“My name is Veronica, and I am the mom of Zamira,” she said, holding back the tears. “My daughter has been detained for 90 days because she was working. They accused her of being a criminal, and she is in jail.”
Her daughter, Zamira Perez, was arrested on Jan. 11 while she was working at a telemarketing company using false documents. The 23-year-old Dreamer began working there after she graduated high school in 2008 and couldn’t afford to attend college because of a state law that requires undocumented immigrants to pay out-of-state tuition.
The next day after Perez’s arrest, a letter came in the mail informing her that she had been approved for the new deferred action program that protects undocumented youth from deportation and grants them work authorization.
But immigration attorneys told Perez’s family that because she is being charged with two felonies — including forgery — for using false documents to work, she no longer qualifies for deferred action. This means she could be deported back to Mexico.
“She only wanted to get ahead and help her family,” Perez’s mother said, with tears streaming down her cheeks. “This is a nightmare.”
Immigration reform could come late for some in Arizona
An immigration reform bill is slated to be introduced in the U.S. Senate within this week. But advocates in Arizona fear it could come too late for many undocumented immigrants like Perez, who face deportation after being arrested during workplace raids and charged with felonies.
The immigration legislation being finalized by the so-called “Gang of Eight” senators is expected to require undocumented immigrants to have no criminal record in order to qualify for it. This means that Perez and other undocumented immigrants who’ve been charged with felonies for using false documents to work in Arizona could most likely be ineligible to benefit from immigration reform.
Carlos Garcia, director of the immigrant rights group called Puente Arizona, said it’s “frustrating” to see how as Congress debates immigration reform, there are hundreds of undocumented immigrants who are facing deportation due to work raids conducted by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies.
“We’ve fought so long for this,” he said of immigration reform. “It has taken so long that in that road, we’ve lost millions of people not only to being criminalized but also literally being deported and sent to other countries.”
Also facing deportation is Noemi Romero, a 21-year-old Dreamer. She was working at a restaurant to pay for the $465 deferred action application fee when Arpaio’s deputies raided the business on Jan. 17 and arrested her. She is now being charged with two felonies: forgery and identity theft.
“She only wanted to work, yet they are treating her like a criminal when she is not a criminal,” her mom, Maria Gomez, said on Monday as she stood next to Perez’s mom.
Raids responsible for hundreds of deportations in Arizona
The workplace raids in Maricopa County began in 2008, the same year when the state implemented an employer sanctions law that prohibits businesses from knowingly hiring undocumented workers. The employer sanctions law quickly became a tool used by Arpaio to crack down on illegal immigration.
Together with former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who was disbarred last year, Arpaio used the new law to go after employers who hired undocumented workers. Forty raids were conducted on businesses suspected of hiring undocumented immigrants in the first two years that the law was implemented. The raids resulted in 308 arrests of people who were charged with identity theft and forgery.
The total number of raids conducted since 2008 now exceeds 70 and only three employers have faced civil sanctions for knowingly hiring undocumented workers.
When Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery was elected in 2010, he continued prosecuting undocumented immigrants who were picked up during the raids and charging them with felonies. He said he did so to fight fraud and identity theft.
Montgomery’s office noted that since he took office, Arizona has gone from having the fourth- to now eighth-highest rate of identity theft complaints in the nation. Montgomery has attributed that decline in complaints to successful prosecutions.
But Garcia and his group claim Montgomery is intentionally charging undocumented workers with serious crimes so that they’ll be deported and ineligible to adjust their immigration status in the future.
“This isn’t happening in other states or in any other county,” he said of the workplace raids and felony charges. “It’s something that is only happening here in Maricopa County with Sheriff Arpaio and with Bill Montgomery.”
Montgomery, who is a vocal supporter of immigration reform proposals like the Solution to Federal Immigration Reform (SANE) framework developed by The Real Arizona Coalition, has said he only charges individuals based on conduct – not their residency status, race, skin color, or other attributes.
Jerry Cobb, Montgomery’s spokesman, told VOXXI in an email that Caucasian, native-born U.S. citizens suspected of the same offense are charged exactly the same way.
“The County Attorney bases charging decisions according to the laws he is sworn to uphold,” Cobb said. “As of this moment, identity theft is a felony crime in Arizona. If the voters or legislature choose to change the law, Montgomery will enforce the new law — regardless of how it is changed — with the same commitment.”
ICE could decide fate of Dreamers facing deportation
Garcia added that the fate of Perez and Romero now rests in the hands of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers. He joined the Dreamers’ mothers and dozens of immigrant rights advocates outside ICE’s Phoenix office on Monday to call on the agency to release them.
“There’s no more literal contradiction than the one that is happening with these two cases,” Garcia told VOXXI. “Both of these individuals were given the opportunity to apply and become documented in this country, yet they are being prosecuted for the same right they were given federally.”
Perez’s mom said having her daughter incarcerated has been “very tough” but she tries to stay hopeful.
“I never thought we would go through this,” she told VOXXI. “It’s really tough seeing my daughter in handcuffs, but I’m determined to keep fighting so that she doesn’t get deported.”
(Story updated to include response from Maricopa County Attorney’s Office)