An Arizona family tangled in a high-profile deportation case learned this week they can stay in the country. They are the latest example of unauthorized immigrants who were criminally prosecuted in Maricopa County, but the federal government is choosing not to deport.
Four years ago, Maricopa County Sheriff's Office deputies descended on a car wash and arrested about a dozen immigrant employees on felony charges for working with fake IDs
Sandra and Carlos Figueroa were among those arrested. At the time, their United States-citizen daughter, Kathy, was 9.
Right after her parents' arrest she appeared in a video on YouTube reacting to her parents' jailing.
"I never thought this would happen to my parents," she said through tears. She asked President Barack Obama to help. "And I don't want Sheriff Joe Arpaio getting other people and my parents again."
To date, Arpaio's office has arrested several hundred immigrants in the country illegally on felony identity theft charges in more than 70 worksite raids. It's a policy that's unique to Maricopa County.
The tactic has been criticized by the Department of Justice, and is mentioned in the agency's lawsuit against Arpaio for discriminating against Latinos.
For the Figueroas, they did eventually get out of jail, after pleading guilty to a felony. Carlos Figueroa said he and his wife used made-up Social Security numbers that didn't belong to anyone in order to work.
"Obviously I never used it to try to get benefits for myself," Figueroa said. "I never do that. I never took identity for anybody, I never took Social Security for anybody."
But the Figueroas were felons under the law.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiated deportation proceedings against the couple. The kind of felony on their record made them ineligible for any immigration benefits, and a priority for deportation.
"We had fear, we had a lot of anxiety," Sandra Figueroa said in Spanish, about the possibility of being sent back to their native Mexico.
But now we can finally rest easy, she said.
That's because this week, ICE decided to use prosecutorial discretion to close its deportation case against the Figueroas, which allows them to stay in the country. On Wednesday, an immigration judge made it official.
Kathy, once the tearful little girl, is now 13 and got her wish that her family will be together in Phoenix.
"Right now I am really happy, excited because it is a new life for us," she said.
Even the Figueroas' attorney, Delia Salvatierra, admits this was an unusual outcome.
"It's amazing that this case was administratively closed because there is an underlying felony conviction," Salvatierra said.
The Figueroas' case was high profile because the family's plight was captured in a recent documentary, and the local advocacy group Puente circulated petitions and made phone calls to stop their deportation.
Additionally, in recent months, local attorneys — including Salvatierra — have been persuading ICE lawyers to close the deportation cases of immigrants who have felonies on their record because they were caught using fake papers or assumed a fake identity to work in Maricopa County.
Salvatierra said dozens of deportation cases in that category have been closed in recent months. That includes several people who were arrested in February when MCSO raided a silk-screening shop and later plead guilty to identity theft felonies. Many of those immigrants had their removal cases closed from ICE detention facilities in Florence and Eloy.
Salvatierra has argued it's a conflict for the federal government to take these felony convictions at face value.
"How can one arm of the Department of Justice be suing and be arguing that MCSO's conduct in these worksite raids is unconstitutional and a violation of civil rights," she said, while at the same time, the Immigration Court — which is also housed within the Department of Justice — deports those immigrants arrested by the Sheriff.
In late May, a federal judge presiding over a different racial profiling suit against Arpaio found his office violated the law in its treatment of Latino motorists.
Salvatierra said she believes that verdict has made it easier to convince ICE and immigration judges to look at these identity theft felonies in Maricopa County differently.
"I think that the trend and growing sentiment is to really undermine those convictions that arise against Latinos and undocumented workers by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Maricopa County Attorney's Office," she said.
ICE would not comment beyond a statement saying it is "focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators."
Given that, Arpaio said he thought it was strange that the Figueroas weren't deported.
"Because I thought that felons were one of the priorities of the government to deport," Arpaio said.
But he said it is ultimately the federal government's choice.
"I'm going to continue to do my policy, which is to enforce the fake ID laws," Arpaio said.
In fact, the same day the Figueroas' deportation case was closed, Sheriff's deputies swarmed two Phoenix-area restaurants and arrested nine workers on identity theft charges. A tenth was arrested on other charges.
It was the first such worksite raid in five months. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office had temporarily suspended those operations in light of the federal judge's racial profiling ruling against the office.
Immigrant rights advocates say they believed Wednesdays arrests were retaliation.
Apraio said it would be impossible to launch a raid that quickly, and said the investigation began more than nine months ago.
He also said the operation has "nothing to do with illegal immigration."
"These are state investigations for ID theft," Arpaio said. "It has no bearing on where they come from."
Salvatierra said she applauds the county cracking down on people who steal other people's identities and wreak havoc with their finances.
"We have no problem with the sheriff enforcing those laws," Salvatierra said. "We just don't think they should be applied in the way they have been against the undocumented for working."
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