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A Woman Was Held in Jail Because Authorities Thought She Was Illegal

Briseira Torres (left), with friend Amy Diaz, one day after her release from Estrella Jail.
Stephen Lemons

Many a dumb redneck has called my voicemail to leave some anonymous anti-Mexican rant and wonder about my use of the word "nativism" to describe the plague of hate that has engulfed this state for several years.

So here's a definition for the knuckle-draggers, borrowed from American historian John Higham: "[I]ntense opposition to an internal minority on the ground of its foreign (i.e., 'un-American') connections."

It's a recurring form of bigotry common to the U.S. of A., directed at the ethnicity or nationality of the latest immigrant influx. In 21st-century Arizona, this prejudice is aimed at anyone of Hispanic descent, anyone who might resemble an arrival from Mexico.

Sand Land's nativism is democratic, with a little "d." The state's dominant political party, the GOP, endorses it as tenet of faith. Politicians use it to achieve power. And ugly, xenophobic proposals are codified by popular vote.

One of these grotesque laws enacted by referendum was Proposition 100, an amendment to the state constitution denying bail to those presumed to be in the country illegally, who have committed a "serious felony offense," defined by the Legislature as a Class 4 felony or above.

In 2006, Prop 100 received a 3-to-1 endorsement by the electorate. Never mind that bail for all but the most serious crimes is a cherished privilege protected by parts of the Arizona and U.S. constitutions.

Nearly 78 percent of Arizona voters decided to junk this legacy and deny bail based on suspicion of undocumented status. That means someone accused of forgery is treated the same way, bail-wise, as Colorado mass murder suspect James Holmes.

Recently, the Maricopa County Attorney's Office alleged Briseira Torres, a shy, 31-year-old single mom from Glendale, was here illegally and that Briseira Torres was not her real name.

She was accused of three counts of forgery, in part because her driver's license had her real name on it, which the MCAO thought was bogus. Following her arrest, she was held without bond in Estrella Jail for 4 1/2 months.

Torres lost her home and car because she couldn't make the payments as she endured Estrella's harsh conditions, lousy food, and detention officers.

Worst of all, she was separated from her 14-year-old daughter, who stayed with Torres' friend Amy Diaz while her mom was behind bars.

Torres' eyes well up as she recalls the days her daughter came to visit and had to see Torres in county stripes.

"It was really hard, especially the first time," Torres tells me in the offices of her attorney, Delia Salvatierra. "She was very sad."

Torres was released on August 3, after the MCAO was forced to dismiss the case.

Salvatierra, a well-known immigration attorney, along with the aid of criminal attorney Antonio Bustamante and Johnny Sinodis, a counsel in Salvatierra's office, went to battle on Torres' behalf.

In the pile of paperwork they provided to the court, to the prosecutor, and to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement was a silver bullet: a sworn statement from Arizona's Office of Vital Records attesting to the legitimacy of documents on file for Torres.

Among these docs is Torres' birth certificate, showing she was born August 14, 1981, in Avondale.

Salvatierra asked the court to remand the case back to the grand jury.

Judge Carolyn Passamonte did just this, noting in her minute entry that Torres' long-form birth certificate was "clearly exculpatory evidence that should have been presented to the grand jury."

The judge remarked that the documents on file with Vital Records had been "available to the state," and in oral arguments, the prosecutor had to admit that he'd never bothered to pull the file and inspect it.

More troubling still was Passamonte's observation that the MCAO's lone witness, Detective Chris Oberly of the Arizona Department of Transportation's Office of the Inspector General, told the grand jury this:

In 1999, Vital Records discovered that Torres' birth certificate, in his words, had been "falsely created" by Torres' mother and so the department "canceled it."

This was not true, according to Vital Records. Torres' birth certificate never was canceled and remains as valid as the day it was issued.

Facing a hearing regarding Torres' bond status that he was bound to lose, Deputy County Attorney Daniel Strange moved to dismiss the case "without prejudice," meaning he could, hypothetically, bring back the charges at a later date.

By this time, ICE had lifted its immigration hold on Torres, a move that helped force Strange's hand.

How Oberly, a former ICE agent notorious among certain local immigration attorneys, came to be involved in Torres' case is a twisted plot that would give Franz Kafka a migraine.

Torres had applied for a passport for her daughter last March. As part of the application, she submitted a valid copy of her birth certificate, reissued by Vital Records.

On March 9, Torres was asked to go to a "satellite passport office," located, curiously, at the federal courthouse downtown.

She was separated from her pal Diaz, who had accompanied her, and was questioned by six men, including Oberly and Matthew Kelley, a special agent with the State Department.

"I didn't feel I could leave," Torres says. "I didn't feel I could do anything."

Oberly and the others told Torres her name was Brenda Gomez and that she had been born in Mexico.

"They said, 'Your mom forged your birth certificate,'" Torres states. "I kept telling them no, that as far as I know, I'm a U.S. citizen."

See, Torres was sent to live in Mexico when she was 13, where her father referred to her by the name Brenda and apparently registered her under the name Brenda Gomez.

At 15, she had a daughter, who was born in Mexico, and later became a U.S. citizen.

When Torres returned to the United States in 1999, she was stopped at the border and questioned by U.S. immigration officials. She gave them a confused account of her nationality.

Ultimately, Torres' mom came to the border with her birth certificate, and customs admitted her.

Fast-forward to March: With Oberly bearing down on her, it was like 1999 all over again. Oberly even got her to sign a statement that she'd been Mirandized, in the name "Brenda Gomez."

He did this after he already had questioned her.

MCAO spokesman Jerry Cobb told me Torres' charges and detention were "based on her own statements," regarding her nationality. He blamed defense counsel for not filing their motions fast enough.

What about Oberly's statements to the grand jury?

"[T]he true explanation behind the canceled birth certificate/affidavit did not come forth until after [Oberly] testified," Cobb wrote via e-mail, "when the defense offered the correct explanation at [a] later hearing."

It's unclear what prevented Oberly from inspecting the entire Vital Records file before arresting an innocent woman. Could he have seen it and chosen to ignore it?

I called Oberly, but he declined to answer questions. ADOT e-mailed a response stating that the matter was the subject of "an active investigation."

There are a lot of bad players in this travesty, but the bottom line is that they all had access, or could have had access, to Torres' birth certificate, and they could have easily verified that it was legit.

Being confused about your past is not a crime, even if a cop can persuade you to sign something under a different name. Doing so does not invalidate your citizenship.

It's a given that if Torres were an Anglo, she would not have been treated in this manner. She and her lawyers tell me they're considering suing the agencies involved.

As far as blame goes, the wave of nativism that made Prop 100 law bathes all those who voted for and supported this mockery of due process in a sea of shame. History will not treat these Arizonans well.


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