Correction: An earlier update noted that the Maricopa County Attorney's Office had decided to drop all charges against those arrested in last week's worksite raid. Further inquires have shown that five of those arrested have been released, while another five individuals are still being held at the Maricopa County jail.
PHOENIX – Miguel Venegas was certain he was being driven to the border for eventual deportation. But instead, federal immigration authorities let him off at a bus stop in downtown Phoenix, where he phoned his wife Julia: "I'm out," he told her.
Venegas, 45, was released last Wednesday without bail and without explanation from an immigration detention facility where he was held for two days. Before that he spent five months in a Maricopa County jail for allegedly working with false documents.
His experience highlights a growing trend as Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials close dozens of deportation proceedings for individuals caught in ongoing raids in Maricopa County. Even with the shift, however, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio insists the arrests will continue.
The same day that Venegas arrived at the bus depot, Arpaio's office conducted two worksite enforcement raids, the first since a May ruling by a federal judge that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office agency engaged in racial profiling.
"It brings me great sadness to think what those people that were arrested are going to go through," said Venegas from his home Phoenix. "It's a tough process."
Arpaio has resumed his notoriously harsh immigration enforcement tactics amid a federal lawsuit by the Department of Justice (DOJ) that alleges Maricopa police, operating under orders, violated the constitutional rights of Latinos in its enforcement of immigration laws.
Amid a rising chorus of complaints, the federal government has stepped in to close the deportation proceedings of people arrested in worksite raids carried out under Arpaio's authority. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officials have insisted in prepared statements that cases are reviewed on an individual basis, though they did not say whether the decision to stem deportations was tied to the pending DOJ suit.
In an interview with NAM, Arpaio declined to comment on either the lawsuit or the May ruling. Attorneys for his office are in negotiations now to comply with a federal order and come up with a consent decree before the end of August.
"I don't want to get involved in the federal judge's court ruling. All we can tell you is that we are enforcing state law, which includes ID theft," he said. "Just like any other crime, they committed a violation of state law. Regardless of what ICE wants to do, they still have to do their time."
Arpaio also dismissed claims that he is acting under the guise of state law to continue targeting undocumented immigrants.
"What happens when they get out [is] a whole other issue. They have to go through the criminal justice system like everybody else."
Plaintiff's attorneys in the racial profiling suit admit the ruling only pertains to traffic stops, in which Latino's were routinely targeted, and does not prohibit the continuation of worksite raids.
"There's nothing that absolutely bans [them]," said Dan Pochoda, a lead attorney in the lawsuit for the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona. Still, he described the sweeps as more of the same.
"There's no question that this is a continuation of what I consider to be terrorist practices," said Pochoda. "[Arpaio] wants to show that he's still around."
Business as Usual
Ten employees at Uncle Sam's sandwich shop were arrested in last week's raid, with warrants issued for some 60 more for identity theft. A press release put out by the immigrant rights advocacy coalition PUENTE on Tuesday noted that charges against five of those arrested in the sweep have been dropped by the county attorney. Another five still remain behind bars.
In a statement, PUENTE Arizona organizer Jovana Renteria credited the releases to the efforts of communitty activists. She also vowed to "fight until all of them are released."
Arpaio, for his part, has of late been working to improve long-strained relations with Arizona's growing Latino community. He recently invited a group of Latino pastors to visit and tour the Maricopa Count Jail and was also featured as a guest on a local bilingual radio talk show.
But for his critics, such efforts don't go far enough to repair the damage.
"There's no way that he can fix relations with the Latino community after years of damage," said Lydia Guzman, national immigration chair for the League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) and a plaintiff in the ACLU lawsuit. Guzman documented many of the racial profiling cases both in the ACLU and DOJ lawsuit. "You can't fix that," she added.
As for the recent raid, she echoed Pochoda in describing it as a return to business as usual.
"He can disguise it anyway he wants," she said, "but it's the same old thing. The message is: nothing has changed."
Arpaio's first raid came in June 2008, after the signing of a law by former democratic Governor Janet Napolitano that imposed civil sanctions against employers who knowingly hire undocumented workers. While at the time he cited identity theft as a concern, Arpaio was unequivocal in saying the focus was on apprehending what he termed "illegal aliens."
Since 2008, there have been 73 such raids, with over 500 workers arrested. Only three employers have been sanctioned.
Still, Arpaio insists the raids are necessary, though the focus -- and the language -- has shifted. "Identity theft is a serious felony that creates untold damage to its victims," he said in a recent press release. "By enforcing state law, my deputies are helping to curb the abuses that revolve around this increasing source of crime that affects thousands, if not millions, of Americans."
Detained for Working
Venegas and some 30 others were arrested at the Sportex Apparell company in Tempe last February. He was charged with several felonies, though he eventually pled to a class 6 undesignated felony (for impersonating a legal worker). The charge does not carry deportation proceedings.
ICE has since closed several of the cases stemming from the raid.
But under federal immigration law, identity theft is punishable by deportation. In the past year, a team of Arizona attorneys have been focused on lowering the charges brought against individuals caught in worksite sweeps. Advocacy groups, including the nationwide immigrant rights coalition PUENTE, have also been vocal in challenging the policies of Arpaio.
Still, for the families of those caught up in the raids, the impact can be devastating.
"He was the only one that worked. He is a good man," said Evelia Ventura. Her husband, Jorge, was among those arrested at Uncle Sam's, where he worked for 12 years as a kitchen supervisor.
Ventura spoke as she held her 4-month-old outside the 4th Avenue Jail in downtown Phoenix, where her husband is being held. She was tearful as a group of PUENTE protestors surrounded her, chanting, "Arrest Arpaio, not the people."
"I'm in shock," said a distraught Ventura. "I don't know what to do. I know nothing at all," she said in Spanish. Ventura has four other children and was waiting for her husband's check to pay rent and electricity.
"My daughter asked me, 'What happened to dad?' I answered, 'They detained him for working.'"
NAM reporter Valeria Fernández worked for Uncle Sam's as a waitress in training for two months in 2001. She is a co-director and producer of the film Two Americans, which chronicles the impact of immigration raids on Latino families in Arizona.