Maria del Carmen Garcia Martinez was booked for forgery on March 6 by police in Maricopa County, Arizona. But she was never charged. Instead, six jail guards allegedly threw her to the floor and broke her left arm after she refused to sign a document that would have enabled the sheriff’s office to turn her over to immigration officials. She cried in pain all night but didn’t receive medical care for the next 20 hours.
Garcia’s case is alarming but not unique.
Maricopa County and its jails are overseen by the self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America," Joe Arpaio, who has made national headlines for arresting large numbers of immigrants. Complaints about violations of civil rights at Arpaio’s jails are rampant. In 1997, Amnesty International condemned the treatment of prisoners (most of them were awaiting trial) by the sheriff’s office, citing the use of excessive force. Lawsuits related to these situations have cost Maricopa County more than $42 million in settlements in addition to the attorney costs incurred during the 16 years Arpaio has been in office.
Many of the cases have been extensively reported by the Phoenix New Times a weekly newspaper that has reported on the abuses at the sheriff’s jails for more than a decade now. The best-known case involves the 1996 death of Scott Norberg, whose family settled for $8.25 million after Norberg died in a restraint chair at one of the jails. But the paper’s reporters also investigated the circumstances of the 2007 death of Juan Mendoza Farias. The sheriff’s office said Mendoza died of natural causes; the paper’s investigation raised questions that he was allegedly beaten to death by guards. In 2008, the county paid $2 million to the family of Brian Crenshaw, a disabled man who died after a fight with a detention officer. The sheriff office claimed in his case he "had fallen from his bed."
Arpaio was the subject of an investigation by reporters at the East Valley Tribune (the series won a Pulitzer Prize this year) and his office is now being investigated by the Department of Justice for racial profiling.
But this is not the first time he’s being investigated.
Following complaints of mistreatment in the jails, the justice department initiated an investigation in 1995, which ended in a suit that was dismissed. There was an agreement that banned the use of restraint chairs and established rules on the use of pepper spray and stun guns at the jails.
Despite this history, the sheriff’s office received authority from the federal government to question people about their immigration status and to turn people over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials.
Garcia’s nightmare started six days before her arm was broken. The 47-year-old, stay-at-home mother encountered the police at the doorstep of her home in West Phoenix. Police officer Karen Anderson told Garcia she had violated city code by posting yard sale signs on city property.
"I told her I would take them down. I had no problem," said Garcia, who only speaks Spanish and has been in the United States for the last 20 years.
But things took an unexpected turn.
The officer asked for Garcia’s identification to give her a warning. Garcia pulled out her expired California driver license. Anderson believed the ID was fictitious and arrested her on the spot.
Possession of a fake driver license is considered a misdemeanor in Arizona. Some attorneys have argued that the police officer could have simply issued a citation and let Garcia go. Instead, she was booked on forgery charges (which is a class four felony in Arizona), because police believed she was intending to defraud an officer by showing a fraudulent document.
Garcia was sent to Estrella Jail, where prison guards have been trained to place holds on undocumented immigrants to assist in their deportation. Yet, Garcia was never charged and police experts haven’t been able to prove that the license was false or genuine, according to the police report.
"They dismissed the case. Her ID was valid," said Daniel Ortega, a civil defense lawyer representing Garcia. "They were in a fishing expedition and they wanted to get her arrested."
But Garcia’s nightmare didn’t end with the arrest.
She was booked on Mar. 6 for forgery charges. On Mar. 11, a day before her hearing, the sheriff deputies decided to transfer her to immigration authorities. Garcia was taken to an office and told to put her fingerprint on a form in English. She refused, believing it was a document to have her voluntary removed from the country. The form turned out to be a "certificate of service," a notice about her rights to see an immigration judge to challenge her removal from the country. It was part of the procedure of transferring her to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
When Garcia refused to give her fingerprint, the officers took her to a separate room. As Garcia tells it, six guards–four men and two women–jumped on the 5-foot tall woman. She fell on the ground and one man twisted her left arm behind her back, while others tried to force her right arm to get her index finger on the form. Meanwhile the female guards were stepping on her. Garcia cried out in pain.
Her arm was allegedly broken in that struggle and she was left alone in a room for hours. "The one who broke my arm came around the window and told me ‘You’re stupid,’" she said. Later, an ICE officer allegedly told her: "Lady, if you don’t sign, we’re going to have to force you again."
Garcia didn’t receive any medical care. She was fearful to say anything more and agreed to put her fingerprint on the document. "I was scared all night. I couldn’t fall asleep. I was afraid they’d come back in and do something to me. I stayed awake. My arm hurt. I couldn’t move it," she said.
Garcia was locked and alone in a room from 9 p.m. until 6 a.m., when she was put in a holding cell with other women. There, she met an inmate who was about to be released and was able to send a message to her daughter asking for help. Garcia was in terrible pain and was afraid to request a phone call, thinking they wouldn’t let her "after what they did to me."
Garcia’s daughter contacted Ana Sanchez, a criminal defense attorney, who found Garcia in ICE detention that very same day. Garcia looked feverish. Her right hand was swelling and covered with ink. She couldn’t move her left arm.
It was only after the attorney’s visit that ICE officials transported Sanchez to Saint Joseph Hospital where they treated her for an acute left elbow fracture. Immigration authorities released her then on her own recognizance with a court date to continue her immigration proceedings, said Vinnie Picard, an ICE spokesperson.
Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office initiated an investigation after Garcia’s story became public. When questioned directly about it, however, Sheriff Arpaio only said, "I have no problem with that case."
Officials with the sheriff’s office told reporters in the immediate aftermath that Garcia was being uncooperative and put her hand in a fist when they tried to get her fingerprint. They said she threw herself on the floor and later bit them when they tried to restrain her. "We have the authority to use force if the individual doesn’t cooperate," said Lt. Brian Lee, a spokesman for the sheriff’s office. Lee said the federal government demands they get a signature or a fingerprint on these forms.
Dan Pochoda, lead attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona, explained that "as a general matter, law enforcement is not allowed to use force if someone refuses to sign a document unless they get a court rule."
Garcia is still shaken as she retells her story in her living room. Two days after the incident, her right hand is swollen. Her leg has bruises. She still has the memory of the officers overpowering her.
At Estrella Jail, she said, she met other woman with similar stories. A local organization that documents human and civil rights abuses, Respect/Respeto, has also received a letter from the jail. Dated March 7, the letter was signed by 13 women. "Just for being Hispanic and undocumented they treat us like the worse thing on earth," reads the letter. "Please help us. We’re in a tunnel without end, treated like dogs. We need justice."
Among those who signed is a woman whose jaw was allegedly broken while sheriff deputies were arresting her in a raid at her workplace.
The letter has been sent to Congress, where two committees are currently investigating the use of immigration powers by the sheriff’s office.
The women in the letter described themselves as mothers, daughters and wives who are being charged with forgery for using legitimate Mexican driver licenses to recover their cars from impoundment.
The charges they face are not uncommon in Maricopa County.
Between 2007 and 2008, Phoenix Police booked 5,000 people with charges for forgery. A large number of the charges corresponded to cases that involved "intent to commit fraud." According to police, some of these are instances in which people present false foreign driver licenses or fake documents to authorities. This is considered a class four felony in Arizona punishable with probation to up to three years in jail. But for undocumented immigrants it is a de-facto deportation.
Once booked in the jail, inmates are interviewed to determine their immigration status by detention officers who have been trained by the federal government through an agreement known as 287 (g). Since 2007, the sheriff’s office here has turned more than 23,000 immigrants over to ICE.
"Allegations of taking another’s identity or having a false ID are a new excuse used to arrest people suspected of being undocumented," said Antonio Bustamante, a member of Los Abogados, an organization of Latino immigration lawyers who advocate for immigration rights.
These assumptions don’t always turn out to be true. And even if someone has a valid defense, most immigrants simply plead guilty hoping to get out quickly and be reunited with their families, said Bustamante. Under state law, they don’t have a right to bail.
The consequences are dire. Those arrested might forever hurt their chances of migrating legally to the U.S. if there is ever some form of legalization granted by the government. And prosecutors know that.
Lisa Posada, a private defense attorney, often sees these kinds of cases. She believes some officers pick the higher charges so they can bring suspected undocumented immigrants to the jail where they’ll be detected by immigration authorities. While the police officers could just issue misdemeanors, they chose to bring people in and charge them with committing fraud.
"When I have a white college kid who gets caught with a fake ID to get into a bar, they get a misdemeanor charge. But if somebody is Mexican and believed to be in the country illegally, they get charged with forgery," she said.
Barnett Lotstein, an assistant county attorney, claims these situations are quite different. "They committed one crime in coming into the country illegally. Now they’re compounding the crime by having these documents that are not legal," he said.
In many cases like in Garcia’s, the police don’t have a strong foundation to prove in court that the document is false. But it doesn’t matter because most people don’t fight the charges. Instead, they get deported.
This trend concerns immigration advocates who worry about the expansion of 287 (g) programs across the nation.
A recent report by the Government Accountability Office, the investigative arm of Congress pointed out that there is a lack of proper supervision by ICE on 287 (g) programs. Of the 43,000 immigrants removed last year through the use of these agreements, the government doesn’t know how many had a serious criminal record.
Another study by the think tank Justices Strategies points out that this type of agreement has been increasingly used to go after non-criminal undocumented immigrants rather than serious offenders. According to their report, "Residing in the U.S. without proper documentation is a civil immigration violation, but it is not a crime. Yet under 287(g), people are jailed when their civil immigration status is in question."
Janet Napolitano, the secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, recently issued an order questioning the possibility of expanding these programs with more jails across the country. Napolitano has been a supporter of the idea since she was governor of Arizona and was a key player in obtaining these immigration powers for state prison guards.
In Maricopa county, immigration advocates from the local group PUENTE are hoping to shed light on what immigrants are suffering in the county jails through a protest this Saturday May 2. The march will start from the office of the sheriff in downtown Phoenix to Estrella Jail.
"We’re going to visit this jail because many people are unaware of the abuse that is occurring there. We know about the racial profiling but within the jail the abuse vy the deputies–physical and mental–is a torture," said Lydia Guzman, director of RESPECT/RESPETO, a group that documents human and civil rights abuses in Arizona.
The irony in Garcia’s case is that she might stand a chance to stay in the country. Emilia Bañuelos, her immigration attorney, believes her client could qualify for a visa type U, which is given to victims of violence.
"I thought I was going straight to Mexico," said Garcia. "Had I not been able to get out people would have never found out what happened to me."
Valeria Fernández is a freelance writer in Arizona.