Phoenix, Arizona - When Maricopa County sheriff's deputies raided Celia Alejandra Alvarez's workplace and discovered her hiding place, she says they lifted her off her feet and slammed her face into a wall, causing injuries to her jaw and teeth. Later, in detention for having false documents, she says she was not given medical care.
"I'm never going to forget what I went through behind bars," the 32-year-old Mexican immigrant told IPS. Last month, she filed a lawsuit against the sheriff's office.
Alvarez is not alone. Other immigrant women and mothers like her describe allegations of physical abuse and being shackled during childbirth while in the custody of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who runs five county jails, is in the national spotlight for his crusade to have local police arrest undocumented immigrants and facilitate their deportation. But he is also the subject of a probe into civil rights violations, and a federal grand jury on abuse of power.
Advocates contend the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and the sheriff's office are equally to blame for the alleged violations occurring at the jails. They argue the cooperation between local police and immigration authorities has led to increased arrests of undocumented immigrants for minor offences.
Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the enforcement arm of DHS, has an agreement with Arapio known as 287(g) that allows jailers to place retainers on undocumented immigrants to transfer custody once their state charges are resolved.
ICE officials defend the agreement, reporting that 69 percent of immigrants detected through this programme in Maricopa have committed serious crimes. Among the categories included in "serious crimes" are people accused of forgery and identity theft - crimes connected with immigrants' inability to present legal documents to work.
Part of the issue is that laws in Arizona related to employment are being used to "cast a wide net" across immigrant communities in order to deport people, said Victoria Lopez, an immigration attorney and immigrant rights advocate at the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) of Arizona.
"This is sad. It's a crime out of the necessity to feed one's children, to live and function and take care of one's family," she told IPS.
That is what Alvarez did. She took on the false name of Francisca Perez Mendoza and got a job at a landscaping company for six dollars an hour. The mother of four children born in the U.S. was still nursing her three-month-old baby at the time of the raid.
On the early morning of Feb. 11, 2009, dozens of sheriff deputies wearing ski masks arrived at her job and arrested 60 workers.
"It was unfair the way they arrested us, it was like they were chasing rabbits," said Alvarez.
She said after a deputy injured her jaw, one of them hit her with a clipboard for trying to speak to a family member who had also been detained.
Her experience only worsened when she was incarcerated in Estrella Jail.
The facility holds over 2,000 women at a time. According to estimates, about 10 percent are undocumented immigrants and 70 percent haven't yet been convicted of any crime.
Alvarez was forced to strip in front of male guards and take off the religious garments she wore as a member of the Church of the Latter Day Saints to don the black-and-white-striped uniform used in the jail. She says that during her three months in the jail, she didn't receive proper medical treatment or medicine to ease the pain of her injuries.
Maria del Carmen Garcia, a Mexican immigrant and mother of three, told a similar story. She has a pending civil lawsuit against the sheriff's office.
Garcia, 46, was arrested when police come to her home to tell her not to put up yard sale signs around her neighbourhood. The officer decided to arrest her on forgery charges when she presented her identification.
She was only in Estrella Jail for five days when the charges were dropped for lack of evidence. But her nightmare began on the way out.
The incident happened on Mar. 11, 2009. Six deputies forced her to put her fingerprint on a form to be transferred to ICE and allegedly broke her arm. After that, she was locked in a room all night.
Garcia, a housewife who has been living in the U.S. for close to 20 years, was fortunate enough to have a criminal defence attorney assist in securing her release.
"Had I been deported, I wouldn't be able to tell my story," she said. "I promised all the other women in there that I would speak up."
An internal investigation by authorities determined that her claims were "unfounded", but did not dispute the fact that she was forced to put her fingerprint on the form.
An alarming problem for advocates is that "many people are traumatised, many feel very pressured by the conditions (in the jails) to sign voluntary deportations or to wave their rights to see an immigration judge," said immigration attorney Lopez.
Undocumented immigrant women who enter the jail must await trial behind bars. They are denied bond under state laws and they are also held on a retainer to be turned over to immigration authorities after their cases are resolved.
This has resulted in situations where pregnant women had to give birth in detention, unlike other detainees who can be bailed out. The sheriff's office practice is to shackle pregnant inmates during childbirth.
In October 2008, Alma Chacón, 35, an undocumented immigrant arrested during a traffic stop for having unpaid tickets, gave birth in a "forensic restraint". The sheriff office said they used a 12-foot-long chain to restrain her. But she recalled that they shackled her hands and legs. She wasn't allowed to hold her baby until she was released from immigration custody 70 days later.
"I hope that if I tell my story, they are finally going to change things," she told IPS.
Last December, Miriam Mendiola-Martinez, 34, had a similar experience. The undocumented Mexican immigrant was arrested for using somebody else's name to work in a department store for six years.
She said that she spent the last two months of her pregnancy in Estrella Jail being shackled every time she was transported and poorly fed. She had a Caesarian section at the hospital, but a deputy shackled her to the bed when she was still bleeding from her recovery.
"There wasn't a reason for it, I couldn't escape," she told IPS.
Sheriff Arpaio plans to expand his immigration enforcement programme. He dismisses allegations of human rights abuses and says his officers have helped to identify over 33,000 undocumented immigrants that came to his jails in the past three years.
Currently, legislators in Arizona are working on a bill that would allow local police to arrest an undocumented immigrant for trespassing on state land. If it becomes law, the number of immigrants arriving at the jails is expected to increase.
In fiscal year 2009, ICE held more than 380,000 migrants in detention. About 60 percent of them were detained by local law enforcement through programmes like 287(g). More than half had no criminal record, according to a report issued by a former official at DHS.
Last October, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced a review of the detention immigration system to prioritise health, safety and responsibility. Part of the plan includes expanding agreements with local authorities to identify undocumented immigrants that come into the jails.
In response, human rights groups across the country launched the campaign "Dignity, Not Detention". It denounces the expansion of detention and the increased role of local police in the incarceration of undocumented immigrants for minor offences.
"We don't feel there could be any true reform of the detention system without taking a look at the use of local law enforcement and the number of people being swept up by it," said Jacki Esposito, policy coordinator with Detention Watch Network (DWN), the group that is spearheading the campaign.
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