Lydia Guzman’s head is full of stories. Her cell phone is full of pictures of the people who told them to her. There is the picture of Yuri, a girl who was raped by the man she paid to smuggle her across the border. And Angelica, a young woman who dropped out of college to care for her brothers, sisters, nieces, and nephews after her mother and aunt were stopped in traffic by police and put in federal detention.
The picture that almost always makes her cry is of 12-year-old Nelson, who left Honduras alone to try to join his mother in Phoenix. His mother, Fermina, didn’t know he was coming until she received a call from a coyote, or human smuggler, who found him trying to cross from Mexico to the United States. Though she made a meager living selling tamales, Fermina agreed to pay the coyote $1,500 to see her only child. After two weeks had passed with no sign of Nelson, his mother called Guzman. Fermina reluctantly turned over two photographs of Nelson to aid in the search, but she implored Guzman not to lose them. They were all she had of her son.
Nelson never reached Phoenix. Guzman believes he died of heat exhaustion after coyotes abandoned him in the scorching heat of the Arizona desert.
Guzman runs a hotline called Respect-Respeto. It serves as a 911 for undocumented immigrants who are afraid to call the police. Sometimes they call because a family member is sick and afraid to go to a doctor. Others ask for a safe route home from work when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who calls himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” is raiding a barrio.
Guzman is among a network of activists working with Unitarian Universalists to promote immigrant rights in Arizona. And she is one of the partners helping to plan the Unitarian Universalist Association’s 2012 “Justice General Assembly” in Phoenix. Guzman says she is grateful for the work of Arizona UUs in bringing to light civil and human rights abuses of immigrants. She is also heartened that UUs from around the country will visit Phoenix in June. “I welcome them to come and meet individuals and have conversations about life here,” Guzman says. “We want the Arizona story to be told and have people take it back with them to their hometowns.”
Guzman and Respect-Respeto are part of a coalition of immigrant-rights groups called Somos America. Somos includes several groups that will be represented at the Justice GA, as well as immigrant-rights allies, such as the Rev. Dr. Ken Brown, district executive of the UUA’s Pacific Southwest District, and Sandy Weir, organizer at the Arizona Immigration Ministry, a program of the UU Congregation of Phoenix. Each member of Somos brings a distinct approach and is a singular piece of the immigration rights puzzle. Some organize marches, others citizenship fairs and voter-rights drives. There are members of the business community who decry the deleterious effect that the state’s treatment of undocumented people has had on jobs, the tax base, and the overall Arizona economy. There are DREAMers, working for passage of the DREAM Act, legislation that would permit immigrant students who have grown up in the United States to apply for temporary legal status and become eligible for U.S. citizenship. Others are focused on the actions of Sheriff Arpaio and administrators of public and private prisons holding some 3,000 people in immigration detention in Arizona.
Florence, Arizona, is about an hour’s drive southeast of Phoenix. It’s a desert town with a population of 25,000 people. It’s also home to almost 10,000 prisoners. Wedged into the town’s eight square miles are nine prisons: state and county lockups, two prisons run by private corporations, and a federal detention center.
Over the past five years, the number of men, women, and children detained by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and warehoused in federal immigrant detention centers, county jails, and private prisons has increased 58 percent. The American Civil Liberties Union estimates that ice detains 3,000 people on any given day in Arizona—10 percent of the nation’s detained immigrant population.
Carlos Garcia leads monthly vigils in Florence in solidarity with detainees. He’s the director of Puente Arizona, a grassroots migrant-rights organization. Puente serves a community under attack. Though many Latinos have lived in Arizona for decades, if not all their lives, they live in fear of being detained.
In 2010, the attack on immigrants in Arizona came into the national spotlight with the passage of SB 1070, a strict law making it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant in Arizona. On the day it became law, Puente helped organize protests in front of Sheriff Arpaio’s office, where twenty-nine UUs, including UUA President Peter Morales and the Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, minister of the UU Congregation of Phoenix and leader of the Arizona Immigration Ministry, were arrested. Even before that bill’s passage, however, Arizona was targeting the state’s undocumented immigrants with laws that denied social services to immigrants, required English-only teaching in schools, and prohibited immigrants in the criminal justice system from posting bail.
“There’s two ways of getting rid of people,” says Garcia, who wears his long, black hair tied back in a ponytail hanging halfway down his back. “There are the efforts of the police and ICE, and there is making life so miserable for people here that they will self-deport.” Garcia and Puente are trying to fight on both fronts, documenting police and detention abuses, and empowering migrants in their communities with health classes, community gardens, computer trainings, know-your-rights classes, and workshops on creating defense plans—detailed descriptions of what should happen to children and family members if a person is detained by police.
Prisoner treatment is a particular concern for Garcia. He’s hoping to pressure ICE to end its contract to house detainees at the Pinal County Jail in Florence because of a litany of human and civil rights abuses there. On a recent Thursday night, he met with people organizing the next vigil in the Puente office, a modest storefront, consisting mainly of a square of desks and a large whiteboard. Trent Tripp attended from the Phoenix congregation, and Victoria López, a lawyer with the Arizona office of the ACLU, was there, along with her young daughter, who quietly drew pictures beside her.
In the summer of 2011, López authored an ACLU report on detainee abuse in Arizona prisons. She documented systemic civil and human rights abuses related to inhumane conditions and inadequate legal protections.
Among the findings in López’s report were that the federal government’s increased reliance on local law enforcement to detain suspected non-citizens has led to an increase in non-violent, low-risk people being detained in Arizona’s immigration system. Transgender and homosexual detainees were particularly at risk and subject to sexual assault and abuse, the study found. Medical and mental health care standards were low and uneven from one facility to another. Pinal County Jail has received “deficient” ratings for years, yet ICE continues to contract with the county for prison beds.
One of the cases cited by the ACLU documents the story of Leticia, a single mother of two children who are U.S. citizens. ICE detained Leticia, who has no criminal history, for almost two years at the Pinal County Jail. During most of that time, she was not allowed contact visits with her children or outdoor recreation and endured deplorable conditions, according to the ACLU report.
López attends the monthly vigils, along with Garcia, Tripp, and other volunteers, hoping to show solidarity with the detainees and raise awareness of their inhumane treatment. Unlike criminal defendants, who have a constitutional right to an attorney and have public defenders or legal aid attorneys appointed to assist them, people held in federal immigration detention do not. The Florence Project, which provides free legal services to people detained by ICE in Arizona and works alongside Puente and the ACLU, estimates that 86 percent of immigrant detainees go unrepresented due to poverty.
Garcia has seen repeatedly how detentions derail people’s lives. Many of his family members are undocumented. Five have been detained, and four deported. He watched the life of a cousin he grew up with in Tucson unravel after he was arrested at a traffic stop. His cousin, Hector, was in many ways an all-American boy—captain of his football team, graduate of the University of Arizona, owner of a small business that employed fifteen people. He had lived in the United States for twenty years, but he was not a legal resident. After his arrest for being undocumented, Hector was sent to prison in Florence, where he spent six months. In prison and unable to work, he lost his house and his business.
Hector was not deported, and after his release he obtained his legal residency. He also had to rebuild his life.
“There should be a provision for people getting documents, and decriminalization for not having documents,” says Garcia. “A lot of our folks have bought into the idea that they are criminals. SB 1070 has been horrible in a psychological sense.”
Garcia is discouraged by the continued and increasing attacks on immigrants around him. The passage of SB 1070 has distracted people from the harsh laws that preceded them. “We’re not fighting to remove English-only or for people to be given bond,” he said. “Those things have become normalized.”
In the discouraging political climate, Garcia sees hope only in the groundswell of organizing to fight for immigrants’ rights. “There’s nothing left but to keep fighting,” he says.
Luis Avila is more of an optimist. By day, he’s an organizer with Stand for Children, a grassroots children’s advocacy group. And he spends nearly as much time as the volunteer president of Somos.
He has seen the movement grow steadily more sophisticated since its nascence in 2004, when it organized large marches in opposition to Proposition 200, which denied public benefits to immigrants. Proposition 200 also threatened fines and imprisonment to public servants who refused to deny services to undocumented immigrants and to turn them over to authorities. Marches protesting the measure attracted tens of thousands of people. “We had march after march after march,” says Avila. “But that cannot be the only way of expressing frustration with the system.”
Organizers began to attack problems on the policy level and to involve non-Latino allies, business leaders, and churches. Avila’s greatest hopes lie in Latino youth and the leaders emerging around the DREAM Act.
Avila is in daily contact with the Department of Homeland Security to report mistreatment of undocumented immigrants and detainees. And he reaches out regularly to Phoenix police to report complaints about overly aggressive officers and to attempt to educate police officials. “We need a collaborative relationship,” Avila said. “That’s better than setting up a protest.”
In the fall of 2011, Avila and the Somos community were actively involved in the successful campaign to recall Arizona Senate President Russell Pearce, the legislator who sponsored SB 1070.
Even with Pearce gone, Somos is keeping a keen eye trained on the legislature. It tracks new state legislation and explains its potential impact to constituents. As the 2012 elections approach, it will send questions to candidates regarding immigration issues and make their responses public. And it is providing media, fundraising, and other organizational training to nonprofits fighting for immigrant justice.
At the same time, members will pressure President Barack Obama on his Secure Communities program, which enforces the ICE agenda, and encourage DREAM Act legislation. Immigrant-rights groups have voiced loud disappointment in Obama’s immigration policies and in the huge increase in deportations during his administration. As of September 2011, the Obama administration had deported about 1.06 million people in less than three years, as compared to 1.57 million in George W. Bush’s eight-year administration, according to Reuters. Of those deported, 54 percent were non-criminals.
As the presidential election nears, Avila said, “We have to be realistic. We say, ‘Obama, we trusted you once and you failed. How do we know you will keep your promise?’” Avila hopes the U.S. Department of Justice will remove or indict Arpaio, that Congress will pass the DREAM Act, and that the numbers of people dying in the desert as they attempt to cross the border will dwindle and disappear.
Systemic classism has left the immigrant community unseen to most Americans, Avila says. “So many immigrant communities are not seen because they are invisible—landscaping, cutting vegetables, packing meat. They are the invisible people.”
How does an invisible community command notice? Francisco Heredia believes the answer lies in creating informed citizens in the underrepresented Latino communities.
“Through civic engagement is how we will build power,” says Heredia, Arizona state director of Mi Familia Vota (MFV), a nonprofit aimed at promoting citizenship, registering eligible voters, and then getting them out to vote.
MFV holds regular citizenship workshops, which aid legal, permanent residents in filling out the complex ten-page form required to start down the path toward U.S. citizenship. After the passage of SB 1070, MFV has seen a surge in the number of people wanting to become citizens, according to Abigail Duarte, the group’s Arizona state coordinator.
In July 2010, more than 1,000 people showed up for a workshop, with people traveling as many as five hours to get there. MFV turned more than half of them away, as it was set up to accommodate about 400 people that day.
MFV also has staff and volunteers that go door-to-door in Latino neighborhoods encouraging people to register to vote. That strategy—combined with radio and TV announcements, direct mail, and phone calls—gets people to register and then gets them to the polls.
Heredia says there’s a voter registration gap of almost 250,000 voters in the Latino community who could be registered but are not. The number keeps growing because of the large number of Latinos reaching voting age. As more Latinos achieve citizenship, that number will grow, too. Duarte estimates there are 170,000 more people in Arizona eligible to become citizens. UUs can help chip away at that number at the Justice GA, where they can volunteer at an MFV citizenship workshop.
Citizenship and numbers in the voting booth help individuals and the larger community, says Heredia. “We do not have political strength yet in Arizona. We need it to stop the anti-immigrant bills.”
In the meantime, Guzman’s phone will continue to ring, as undocumented people try to get police protection when they’re being extorted and where to find a lawyer who can help a victim of domestic violence apply for asylum.
Guzman rattles off stories in rapid succession. Only once does she pause, as her eyes well with tears. A mother of two teenage boys, she shudders at the struggles of mothers in Latin America, pushing their growing sons to leave them. “They would rather have their sons come here than have them be recruited by the drug cartels,” she says.
She blinks the tears away, and forces a smile. “I’m hoping the tide turns. We need reform. There is no reason families should be torn apart.”
As head of the Arizona Immigration Ministry, Susan Frederick-Gray is hopeful that the Justice GA can have an impact on immigration justice. “We have an opportunity to make a small but real difference in the lives of people most vulnerable to deportation and detention and abuse in Arizona,” she says. “We have an opportunity to make a big difference in Unitarian Universalism and how we do effective justice work and how we see the importance of our faith in this crucial moment in history.”
Frederick-Gray hopes that partnership with justice organizations in Arizona can become a model. She says, “We have the potential to make long-term changes in how we partner and the work that can be done in Arizona and across the country.”
- UUA Justice General Assembly. Phoenix, Arizona, June 20-24, 2012. (UUA.org)
- Arizona Immigration Ministry and Arizona Partners. Information from the UUA. (UUA.org)
- Puente Arizona. Grassroots community organization promoting immigrant justice. (puenteaz.org)
- In Their Own Words: Enduring Abuse in Arizona Immigration Detention Centers. ACLU of Arizona report, 2011. (acluaz.org)
- The Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project. Provides free legal services to people by Immigration and Customs Enforcement in Arizona. (firrp.org)
- Stand for Children: Arizona. Promotes access to education for all children. (stand.org)
- Mi Familia Vota. Promotes increased civic participation by Latino Americans. (mifamiliavota.org)