Amid Protests, Phoenix Police Swept Up Immigrants on Mistaken Charges. Now They Face Deportation.

“This is a prime example of why local law enforcement should not have any interaction with ICE — because cops make mistakes,” a Phoenix attorney said.

Protesters hold hands in front of police as they demonstrate against the death in Minneapolis police custody of AfricanAmerican man George Floyd, and of Dion Johnson, who was killed in Arizona, outside of Phoenix police headquarters in Phoenix on May 29, 2020. Photo: Nicole Neri/Reuters

Jesus Manuel Orona Prieto was downtown in Phoenix, Arizona, as demonstrators took to the streets on the night of May 30 decrying the police killings of George Floyd and other black people across the country. But he wasn’t protesting, according to his girlfriend, Corina Paez. They were on a date.

Twenty-six-year-old Orona Prieto was playing it safe, Paez said. Having fled death threats from a gang in his home state of Chihuahua, Mexico, he didn’t need any extra trouble. He rode in the passenger seat that night, as always, and took care to make sure seat belts were buckled and speed limits followed.

But that didn’t matter to Phoenix police, who swept Orona Prieto up in a wave of mass arrests that night and slapped him with felony rioting charges. Within 24 hours, he landed in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Orona Prieto is one of four undocumented people who were turned over to ICE after they were arrested last Saturday. The other three were brought to the U.S. as children and have protected immigration status under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. Because of the new arrests, they risk losing their DACA status and could be deported.

“This is a prime example of why local law enforcement should not have any interaction with ICE — because cops make mistakes.”

Orona Prieto, who lacks DACA protection, is set to face removal proceedings imminently. He currently awaits his fate in an ICE detention center in southern Arizona that is undergoing a Covid-19 outbreak. According to Paez, who was arrested with him, the couple was pulled over on their way home from dinner downtown. Phoenix police say he was arrested in connection with the demonstration.

“They didn’t tell us anything. They just told us to get out of the car,” Paez said. “They handcuffed us and didn’t read us our rights. I didn’t even know that there was a protest, and suddenly we are getting arrested for no reason — for being downtown at the wrong time, wrong day?”

Phoenix police arrested 114 people in total in connection with the protests, in what the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona called a violation of “civil rights en masse.” Over the next two days, Maricopa County Superior Court judges would repeatedly order the release of many protesters — and those swept up in the fray — after finding that the police arrested them without probable cause.

The Phoenix Police Department admitted that the four undocumented people were labeled with the wrong charges when they were booked into the central jail.

“We have learned that, initially, there was some confusion on the paperwork process,” said Mercedes Fortune, spokesperson at the Phoenix Police Department. “Originally, the paperwork associated with the arrests of [the individuals] listed the charge they were arrested for as a Class Five Felony. The correct charge should have been a Class One Misdemeanor for Unlawful Assembly. Those corrections have been made.”

Nonetheless, the arrests set in motion Arizona’s notorious arrest-to-deportation pipeline. The erroneous felony charges almost certainly drew ICE’s attention.

“This is a prime example of why local law enforcement should not have any interaction with ICE — because cops make mistakes,” said Ray Ybarra Maldonado, an attorney representing one of the DACA recipients. “They make mistakes all the time. And a mistake of a police officer should not result in someone being put in removal proceedings.”

As uprisings spread across the country last week, undocumented people faced added risk. Many had attended demonstrations before, but few anticipated such sweeping arrests.

“We knew that Phoenix police were going to respond violently, just from the long period that we’ve been doing this work,” said Sandra Solis, a community organizer with Puente Human Rights Movement, a local migrant advocacy organization. “While we’ve seen an excessive use of nonlethal force by them, we’ve never seen them go into cars to pluck people out and chase people into neighborhoods to arrest them.”

May 30 was the third night of demonstrations against police brutality and for black lives in Arizona’s largest city. Hundreds of people were gathered in downtown Phoenix for what began as a peaceful protest, condemning the deaths of Dion Johnson, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Tony McDade, and others who have been killed by law enforcement.

There was no curfew that night, but police declared the protest an unlawful assembly around 10:30 p.m. Officers in riot gear began firing tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters. And then the mass arrests began.

“We’ve never seen them go into cars to pluck people out and chase people into neighborhoods to arrest them.”

Máxima Guerrero, a longtime community organizer for immigrant justice with Puente, was acting as a legal observer at the protests when she was arrested. Phoenix Council Member Carlos Garcia has said she called his office from jail on Sunday and said she was leaving the protest in her car when Phoenix police stopped her.

Paez said she and Orona Prieto were separated at the time of their arrests. Police walked up to their car at a red light and ordered them to leave the vehicle. She hasn’t seen him since.

It’s unclear when the other two DACA recipients, Roberto Cortes and Johan Montes-Cuevas, were arrested. But all of them were brought to the central jail for booking, where they were screened by ICE.

Despite the ousting of notorious anti-immigration hard-liner Joe Arpaio in 2016, the current Maricopa County sheriff, Democrat Paul Penzone, continues to allow ICE to operate within county jails. Immigration agents thus screen every person arrested and booked into a local facility. When an undocumented person is released from the sheriff’s custody, ICE is often waiting for them.

So it was with Guerrero and the others — she was released from a downtown jail around 2:15 a.m. on Monday, according to sheriff’s office records, only to be picked up by ICE when she stepped outside. She was then transferred to a local ICE facility.

Her arrest and detention drew public outcry, as local organizers galvanized the community to call, email, and tweet at local officials for her release.

“Everybody has the right to peaceably assemble and express their views, whether they are undocumented or documented,” said Solis of Puente. “Immigrant communities who are constantly profiled might not have the exact same struggle as African Americans do, but they are able to understand what contact with police could mean.”

“Now is the time to fight for racial justice,” Solis added. “People who say undocumented people shouldn’t protest [because of the risk] — I think they’re very far removed, personally.”

Later that same Monday morning, as Guerrero’s case garnered national attention, ICE officials let her go. She was greeted by a crowd of about 40 supporters outside the federal immigration building.

The two other Dreamers, as DACA recipients are often called, were also released from ICE custody on Monday.

The arrests still expose Guerrero and the others to possible deportation.

According to Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, an ICE spokesperson, the three Dreamers signed paperwork committing to appear for future immigration court appearances; their cases “remain pending,” she said.

“All of them have ankle monitors, all of them have to go back to ICE — they’re pretty much in the same situation where deportation’s a big risk,” said Ybarra Maldonado, Guerrero’s attorney, noting that she and Cortes Mondragon have already received dates for removal proceedings. “We need to be very clear about this: This is a temporary victory. They’re not in custody, but it’s far from over.”

Dreamers cannot be deported unless U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services decides to remove their DACA status. But ICE can request it be removed as part of deportation proceedings, and “USCIS could still terminate your DACA, even if you’re not disqualified, for ‘discretionary reasons’ — including arrests or charges,” said Katrina Eiland, senior attorney for ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project.

“The DACA program wasn’t designed for USCIS to terminate somebody for any sort of low-level infraction, but it has happened in a number of cases,” she added.

Orona Prieto has a previous deportation on his record, and his odds of being allowed to stay in the country do not look good. He is now awaiting his removal hearing within Florence Correctional Center, a private prison run by CoreCivic. The facility houses immigrant detainees on behalf of ICE and currently has a Covid-19 outbreak, with five active cases and 15 confirmed cases of prisoners and staff to date.

His girlfriend, Paez, spoke to him for the first time on Wednesday. Through tears, she told him the news: She’d been pregnant but suffered a miscarriage on Monday, shortly after her release from the local jail. “He sounded like he was about to cry,” Paez said. “I told him, ‘Just keep your head up. We’re still together, we’re gonna do this together.’”

Orona Prieto doesn’t have a lawyer, according to Paez. She’s trying to raise money for his legal support, though she said it’s difficult — she lost her job at a local photo shop after the arrest.

“He doesn’t have any family in the country,” said Paez. “I’m the only one who’s here for him.”

Correction, June 8, 1:20 p.m. EDT:
This article previously misspelled the last name of Corina Paez.

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