How Motel 6 and ICE Turned Undocumented Dad’s Stay Into a Nightmare
Eric Torres

How Motel 6 and ICE Turned Undocumented Dad’s Stay Into a Nightmare

CHAPTER ONE: Room Service

Jorge Aranda was sleeping a dreamless sleep when he heard a loud knock at the door around 5 a.m. on July 6. It was still dark outside. Dressed only in boxers, the 29-year-old undocumented immigrant got up and slid open the lock. Two officers from Immigration and Customs Enforcement stood outside room 108, which he and his girlfriend had rented for the night so that they could spend some time alone, away from their families. Jorge felt his heart speed up as they asked for his name, then requested permission to check the room.

Not knowing what else to do, he let them in. The only thing he could think about was his son, who was spending the night at his ex-wife’s house. Jorge Jr., a shy 5-year-old with severe asthma, was about to start kindergarten in the fall. Jorge had nicknamed him “little gecko,” because he was skinny and fast. The boy was his whole life, the reason why he worked 12-hour days framing houses in the Arizona heat. He wondered when he’d be able to see his son again.

One officer asked for his papers. Feeling his stomach drop, Jorge told the truth: The only identification that he had was his Mexican passport, which was in his pants pocket on the floor. He didn’t resist as the officers put him in handcuffs, then led him to an unmarked Ford Windstar minivan waiting in the floodlit parking lot. In the distance, Interstate 10 quietly hummed with the sound of cars speeding by.

Jorge assumed at first that the officers had followed him to the motel. He’d been deported nine years earlier, after getting pulled over in California, and figured that the authorities had somehow gotten word of his return.

What he didn’t know was that the Motel 6 where he and his girlfriend were staying had been giving its nightly guest lists to ICE. When ICE ran the list against its databases, his name had popped up as a match. The same thing had happened to dozens of other guests who, like him, had spent years quietly living in the United States without legal authorization.

Jorge wouldn’t learn all of that until months later. But that morning, when he arrived at ICE’s Phoenix headquarters on Central Avenue, he found himself sitting next to a man who’d been picked up at the Motel 6 on North 52nd Drive on the same night. Neither of them could explain exactly how ICE had found them there. That was when Jorge started to realize that he’d gotten caught up in something much, much bigger.

CHAPTER TWO: The ICE Men Cometh

One longtime Motel 6 employee remembers seeing them once or twice a week: officers in jackets labeled “ICE,” loading people into vans and unmarked cars. Usually, ICE was just leaving the location off Black Canyon Highway on Indian School Road when she and her coworkers arrived in the morning around 8:30 or 9.

“For us, this was normal,” the former employee said in Spanish through an interpreter. “Immigration was always on the prowl.”

Because many of the motel’s staffers are undocumented, the employees used to warn each other quietly. ICE has arrived, they would mutter. ICE is already here.

It was nerve-wracking, the former employee recalled. But ICE was there so often that eventually she grew accustomed to seeing officers wandering the motel grounds.

The woman, who requested anonymity, worked at a different Motel 6 than the one where Jorge Aranda was arrested. But the pattern was the same. At both 4130 North Black Canyon Highway and 1530 North 52nd Drive — which are located in predominantly Latino neighborhoods on the west side of Phoenix — ICE officers would show up late at night or early in the morning, and start knocking on doors.

“We send a report every morning to ICE — all the names of everybody that comes in,” a different employee explained to Phoenix New Times in September. “Every morning at about 5 o’clock, we do the audit and we push a button and it sends it to ICE.”

Searching through federal court records from the past year, New Times found more than 20 instances where ICE had picked up undocumented immigrants at one of these two Motel 6 locations. The first arrest took place last November, but the majority occurred between May and July of this year — which is when local attorneys began to notice the pattern.

But since people who’ve never been deported before will typically be sent to immigration court — where it’s tough to get a hold of basic information, like where an arrest happened — there are undoubtedly many more instances of people getting detained after checking into a Motel 6. (Attorney Delia Salvatierra, who’s handling several of these cases, estimates that the total is in the range of 60 to 80 people.)

4130 North Black Canyon Highway is quiet in the early hours before dawn. This Motel 6, along with another in Phoenix, was providing guest lists to ICE, leading the agency to undocumented guests like Jorge Aranda and many others.EXPAND
4130 North Black Canyon Highway is quiet in the early hours before dawn. This Motel 6, along with another in Phoenix, was providing guest lists to ICE, leading the agency to undocumented guests like Jorge Aranda and many others.
Joseph Flaherty

Since we published our findings in September, the arrests seem to have stopped.

ICE declined to discuss their investigative techniques with us. But, in late September, the U.S. District Attorney’s Office for Arizona confirmed in court filings that employees at Motel 6 had provided guest lists to ICE agents.

The officers “checked the hotel’s guest list against immigration databases to see if any persons staying there had been previously deported,” the prosecutors wrote.

Motel 6 has repeatedly refused to answer questions about how — and why — two of its properties ended up collaborating with ICE. As a result, it’s not clear whether Motel 6 staff initiated the arrangement, or if they were responding to pressure from the agency.

Spokesperson Raiza Rehkoff wrote in a statement that sharing guest lists was something “implemented at the local level without the knowledge of senior management,” but declined to provide further details.

But sources familiar with Motel 6’s operations find that claim hard to believe, given the chain’s reputation for micromanaging its properties.

And it’s important to note that both locations are corporate-owned — meaning that they’re not franchises subject to the whims of an individual owner. (Motel 6’s parent company, G6 Hospitality, is owned by The Blackstone Group, a private equity firm that also owns a stake in the Hilton chain.)

New Times spoke to multiple Motel 6 employees who requested anonymity, since the chain had told them not to speak to the media. One explained that the company encouraged properties to cultivate relationships with law enforcement as a way of fighting the chain’s reputation for being seedy or unsafe.

“For many years, Motel 6 was the joke, and still kind of is, of the hotel-motel industry,” he said.

The same employee argued that his colleagues didn’t racially profile their guests, nor had they picked up the phone to call ICE on immigrant patrons. Instead, he said, Motel 6 staff provided guest lists to law enforcement upon request, ostensibly to make troubled properties safer.

“The whole giving of the list thing, there was never one iota of bad intention,” he added. “It was always in the good intention of creating a place that everybody could come and feel safe staying at our Motel 6.”

Though customers often aren’t aware of it, it’s not uncommon for motels to work closely with law enforcement, and allow police to search their guest registers for people with active warrants. Two years ago, a Motel 6 in Warwick, Rhode Island, went a step further, arranging to send guest lists to the local police department every night in an effort to cut back on crime. After the ACLU complained, the practice was discontinued.

An individual familiar with Motel 6’s operations said that the Warwick incident was hardly unusual: Many properties would routinely provide guest lists to police departments.

“Sometimes law enforcement agencies demanded it, requested it, or it was volunteered,” he said. “Pick one.”

Managers and their superiors would meet regularly to review the latest company practices, according to the same person. Providing guest lists to law enforcement was often discussed as a tool to improve problem properties, and faxing the list to the police was “an olive branch.”

“It was talked about openly,” he said.

When asked about these practices, Motel 6 declined to comment.

There’s no evidence, however, to suggest that any of the people who ICE arrested at Motel 6 were engaged in illegal activity, aside from being in the country without papers. After all, if that had been the case, it would have been the police who showed up.

“It may very well be that Motel 6 was a hotspot for trafficking people into the country and a place where they would then be routed to the rest of the country; I get that,” attorney Delia Salvatierra says. “But that’s not who they were arresting.”

One guest who was arrested by ICE was at the motel because he was having an affair. Another was in the process of moving. One didn’t have air conditioning at home, and decided to rent a room with her kids so that they could all cool off. Another was working late on a construction job and was too tired to drive all the way home, so he got his boss to cover the cost of a motel room. Another had gotten in an argument with his girlfriend and wanted to give her time to cool down.

State Senator Martin Quezada, who grew up within a short walk of the Motel 6 on North 52nd Drive, points out that it’s not exactly a popular destination for tourists. Instead, it tends to cater to people who live in the area and are going through tough times. And given the neighborhood’s composition, those people are likely to be Spanish-speaking immigrants.

“[Motel 6 staff] know who their clientele is,” he says. “Obviously, they see it, and they don’t like that community, so they took matters into their own hands.”

This isn’t the first time that Motel 6 has faced accusations of racism. In 1996, a lawsuit against the company alleged that black customers had been repeatedly refused rooms, and one property had segregated Hispanic guests in a section of the motel nicknamed “Little Mexico.” The chain was eventually ordered to pay more than $2 million in damages to a front desk clerk who had been fired after he complained to higher-ups about the racially discriminatory practices.

Ironically, Motel 6 has also made a concerted effort to attract more Latino customers. In 2002, it hired an agency to create its first-ever Spanish-language ads. More recently, the company announced plans to expand into the Latin American market with a new international brand called Estudio 6. The first properties, located in Puerto Vallarta and Salamanca, Mexico, are expected to open early next year.

Even more ironic is the fact that Motel 6, like many other hotel chains, relies on the labor of unauthorized immigrants. (Nine percent of all hospitality industry workers are undocumented, according to Pew Research Center.)

“The whole model relies on immigrants,” State Representative Athena Salman — a former bellhop at the Westin downtown — points out. While front-of-the-house jobs typically go to native English speakers, new immigrants tend to do most of the behind-the-scenes work, like housekeeping and laundry.

Motel 6’s collusion with ICE sends a message to undocumented workers, she says: “We can do whatever we want, and you don’t have any recourse. Look what we’re doing to these people, and they’re paying customers.”

An undocumented Motel 6 employee in Phoenix said that after witnessing an ICE raid at the property, she and her colleagues have been on edge.

“All of us who are working as cleaning staff are doing so without papers — the majority,” she said. (A Motel 6 spokesperson said that the chain requires locations to “follow all federal and state requirements in their hiring practices.”)

The employees’ fear is that the next time ICE returns, officers won’t come for the guests, but will come for them.
People at work are nervous, the employee said, “afraid that someday, they’ll call immigration again, and that will end it all.”

Jorge Aranda grew up in the small city of La Piedad de Cabadas, in the state of Michoacan.EXPAND
Jorge Aranda grew up in the small city of La Piedad de Cabadas, in the state of Michoacan.

CHAPTER THREE: Seeking a Better Life

Jorge Aranda was born in La Piedad de Cabadas, a city of roughly 100,000 people in the state of Michoacán. Surrounded by mountains and densely forested highlands, La Piedad is home to numerous pig farms, and the smell hits you as soon as you arrive.

Like many of the men in town, Jorge’s father was a pig farmer. Jorge followed him everywhere, helping to shovel alfalfa before heading to school.

By local standards, they were comfortable, if not rich, and Jorge’s father encouraged him to stay in school. But he liked working more than he liked studying, and so, at 14, he dropped out and started an apprenticeship with a welder.

The work was dangerous — he still has a scar from where a piece of aluminum sliced open his thumb — but he enjoyed it. Being able to help support his family felt good. Every week, he’d earn 800 pesos (roughly $40 in U.S. currency) and would give half of that to his parents for the light bill and food.

He knew, though, that he could be making more money on the other side of the border. For as long as he could remember, he’d watched his relatives come back from the United States with nice cars, new shoes, and suitcases full of presents for the entire family.

As a kid, he’d desperately wanted K-Swiss sneakers, but no one ever seemed to remember to bring a pair back for him. Eventually, he’d given up, and vowed to go to America one day so that he could buy them himself. But every time he asked, his relatives told him he was too young to cross the border.

Finally, in 2005, a few months before he turned 18, his older sister called. She’d moved to Tempe several years earlier with her husband, who was working in construction. (As with other undocumented people mentioned in this story, New Times is not publishing their names.) He offered to loan Jorge the $1,300 that he’d need to pay a coyote to take him across the border.

After making the two-hour trip to Guadalajara, Jorge got on a plane that took him to Ciudad Juarez. Then, for three days, he and several other migrants walked through the dry, scrubby hills of the Chihuahuan Desert. Scrambling through the brush reminded him of being a kid and hunting rabbits in the hills that surrounded his hometown.

“It was fun,” he recalls now, laughing. “La migra didn’t stop us at all.”

They crossed the border near the small town of Columbus, New Mexico. He and four other men were placed in the back of a car, and driven to Phoenix.

When they arrived, he was shocked by the amount of traffic and the number of cars on the freeway. The sight of Tempe Town Lake stopped him in his tracks.

“In Mexico, you pass by a river and it’s ugly, black — the water is black,” he says in Spanish. “This was so beautiful.”

It was December 2005 when he arrived in Arizona, and the housing boom made construction jobs easy to find. He traveled as far as Colorado and Nevada and California, doing framing for the spacious single-family houses that developers couldn’t seem to build fast enough. After eight months, he’d paid his brother-in-law back, and could start sending money home.

In 2008, he was driving in Placerville, California, near Sacramento, when a cop pulled him over. He hadn’t been wearing his seatbelt, and the car lacked front plates. Nervously, Jorge, who was 20 at the time, admitted to the officer that he had no driver’s license. He was arrested and ended up spending five days in jail.

As soon as his jail stay came to an end, he was sent straight to Immigration and Customs Enforcement. They drove him to the border and dropped him off in Tijuana, nearly 1,500 miles from home. He had nothing but $35 in his pocket and the clothes that he’d been wearing when he was arrested. For two days, he wandered the streets, being hassled by cops. Eventually, a friend wired him money so that he could afford a ticket back to his hometown.

He called his mother when he got to the bus station in Morelia, two hours away, and asked her to start making his favorite quesadillas. But the house was empty when he arrived. His parents had thought he’d been joking.

That night, Jorge took his mother out for Chinese food, a rare and expensive treat in La Piedad. The day he’d been deported had been Mother’s Day in Mexico, but he’d arrived empty-handed. Everything he owned was in Phoenix.

Jorge thought about staying in La Piedad for good. He’d missed his parents in the years that he’d been gone. But he didn’t want to go back to earning the equivalent of $40 a week, and the town had gotten increasingly dangerous.

The year after he’d left, the Mexican government had declared war on Michoacán’s cartels. But military intervention did little to break up the turf wars between rival cartels, and the death toll kept on rising. Between 2007 and 2008, a total of 500 homicides related to organized crime took place in Michoácan, according to the Mexico City-based newspaper Milenio.

La Piedad had seen its fair share of violence. Most of Jorge’s childhood friends were either dead or in jail. His father told him that he’d made the right choice by leaving.

Only a month had passed before he decided he was ready to return to the United States. He took a 26-hour bus ride to Agua Prieta, then crossed the border near Douglas. Soon enough, he was back in Phoenix, where his sister and her husband were waiting.

Not long after he returned, the housing bubble burst. Construction work became impossible to find. Jorge got a job driving a taxi. Lacking seniority, he was stuck with the overnight shift: 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. Some nights, he’d make as little as $12.

One morning, he was taking out money at the Wells Fargo on 19th Avenue when he spotted an attractive woman in line with her two young daughters. One of the girls waved at him, and he smiled back. Then they were gone.

That night, he was on his way to pick up a passenger when he got a call saying that the ride had been cancelled. It was 3 a.m., so he pulled over at a QuikTrip to buy a cup of coffee. There, at the gas pump, was the same woman he’d seen that morning. She was on her way to work.

“It’s such a big city — what are the odds?” he says. “At that moment I thought, This is the woman for me.”

Before long, they were married. Then, on September 13, 2011, Jorge Jr. was born. He was a serious baby with an intense expression, chubby cheeks, and a full head of hair. At that moment, Jorge recalls, his life changed. Though he was only 23, he decided that he was done throwing away money on beer and brand-name clothes. Everything now would be for his son.

Three years later, it became clear that his marriage wasn’t working out. Jorge and his ex agreed to stay on good terms for Jorgito’s sake. They kept on having family dinner on Sunday night, even after Jorge moved back in with his sister and his ex-wife began a new relationship. Every Friday, he’d pick Jorge Jr. up after work, and they’d go to the arcade or play soccer in the park until it got dark outside.

By summer 2017, Jorge had moved on and found a new girlfriend, who had young kids of her own. He couldn’t bring guests over to his sister’s house, so, on the night of July 5, they picked up some beer and headed to the Motel 6.

The next morning, ICE was knocking at their door. Jorge’s extended family, including his ex-wife and her new partner, scrambled to raise the $12,000 for his bail. After emptying out their emergency savings and borrowing money from friends, they showed up at ICE’s office on Central Avenue hours before he was supposed to be placed in a van and driven to the immigration detention center in Eloy.

His girlfriend, who’d been at the motel with him, got a break: Though also undocumented, she’d explained to the officers that she didn’t have anyone who could take care of her kids if she was detained. They let her go, warning her to get her papers in order.

As soon as he left the lockup, Jorge headed straight to his ex-wife’s apartment, so that he could see his son. He hugged the boy tightly, but didn’t tell him what had happened. At 5, he figured, Jorge Jr. was too young to understand. Then they headed to the apartment complex’s pool.

The next day, he was back at work. It would take close to a year before he could afford to pay everyone back, he calculated. All summer long, he worked 12-hour days, putting up drywall and pouring concrete in the scorching Phoenix heat. He stopped sending money to his family back in Mexico, knowing that he’d need every dollar he earned.

In August, Jorge Jr. started kindergarten. He’s turned 6 in the months since his father’s arrest, and looks uncannily like Jorge — slender and serious, with an almond-shaped face and a cautious demeanor. When the two drive around town together, Jorge Jr. always points out the Geico gecko on billboards.

“It’s you, dad!” he yells.

“No, it’s you,” Jorge jokes. “You’re the little gecko.”

Though Jorge and his ex-wife are both undocumented, Jorge Jr. is a U.S. citizen by virtue of having been born here. This hasn’t changed Jorge’s precarious legal situation, however. For all the right-wing talk about “anchor babies,” it’s actually not that easy for the undocumented parents of U.S.-born kids to get green cards, which are typically the first step toward becoming a citizen.

First, children have to wait to turn 21 before they can petition to get green cards for their parents. If their parents have been living in the U.S. without authorization for more than a year, they’ll typically have to return to their home countries — and stay there for 10 years. Then, the lengthy screening process can begin.

For Jorge, that’s a long way off. And, after his arrest at the Motel 6, he’s now at risk of being deported. Border security has gotten a lot tougher, he says, and he can’t imagine trying to sneak back into the United States.

If — or when — he’s forced to leave the country, would he want his son to come live with him in Mexico?

Jorge is silent for a long time. Then, his eyes full of sadness, he shakes his head.

“If I took him there with me, it would be only for a little while, and then I’d want him to come back here. It’s better here than in Mexico. That’s no life for a kid.”

CHAPTER FOUR: Just an Isolated Incident?

In September, New Times revealed that Motel 6 had been providing guest information to ICE. Jorge saw the story and contacted us shortly after. Meanwhile, amid calls for a nationwide boycott, the chain quickly issued a statement saying that the practice had been discontinued.

“Moving forward,” spokesperson Raiza Rehkoff wrote, “to help ensure that this does not occur again, we will be issuing a directive to every one of our more than 1,400 locations nationwide, making clear that they are prohibited from voluntarily providing daily guest lists to ICE.”

Since then, we haven’t heard of any ICE raids happening at Motel 6. But how do we know that something like this won’t happen at some other hotel or motel?

“My big fear,” State Senator Martin Quezada says, “is that this isn’t an isolated incident. That it’s not just Motel 6. I think that’s something we’ve got to try and figure out — are other businesses doing stuff like this as well?”

The American Hotel and Lodging Association told Bloomberg that most hotels won’t hand over guest information without a court order. So did Choice Hotels International Inc., which owns Comfort Inn, Rodeway Inn, and Sleep Inn. But since chain hotels are often independently owned and operated by individual franchisees, it’s hard to get an accurate picture of how widespread the industry’s standard practice actually is.

If one of those individual owners decides to send their guest lists over to ICE, they’re not necessarily violating federal law. Though a 2015 Supreme Court ruling stated that cities can’t force hotels to turn over their daily guest lists to law enforcement, there’s nothing stopping hotels from doing so voluntarily.

The Arizona Latino Legislative Caucus is currently asking Attorney General Mark Brnovich to investigate whether Motel 6’s decision to share guest information with ICE violated state law. If not, they plan to develop legislation that could prevent something like this from happening in the future.

“Arizonans understand that what you do in your personal time is none of the government’s business,” State Representative Athena Salman argues. “Motel 6 has no business turning over entire registers of everyone who’s staying there, and handing it over to ICE opens the floodgates for a lot more abuses of personal information.”

Beyond the violation of privacy, there’s something else disturbing about the fact that a business would voluntarily turn paying customers over to the authorities.

Back in the mid-2000s, Mesa-based immigration attorney Juan Rocha recalls, heavily armed vigilante groups like the Minutemen patrolled the Arizona border, taking it upon themselves to tip off Border Patrol when they spotted migrants who had crossed into the United States.

Now, Rocha says, “It’s like the Minutemen, so to speak, have moved into Phoenix and the suburban areas.”

And in these suburban communities, located hundreds of miles from the border, the people who are getting swept up in the immigration dragnet are often the ones who’ve been here for years.

People who’ve lived in the country long enough to earn degrees, buy houses, start businesses, and raise U.S.-born kids. Or people who’ve done none of those things, but have nonetheless built new lives here after fleeing poverty and violence. People who would readily get in line for legal citizenship, green cards, or work permits — if only there was a line for them to get in.

People like Jorge Aranda.

On a dark Friday evening in November, he sat at the dining room table in his sister’s immaculate west Phoenix home. Dinner was simmering on the stove, and the smell of cilantro filled the room. As he talked about his upcoming court date, he rolled up his sleeves and rested his callused hands on the table. His forearms were tan from working outdoors, and his face showed his fatigue. Not long after his arrest, he and his girlfriend had broken up, but that wasn’t what was was bothering him.

“I want people to know that I just want to be here for my son,” he says. “And I want to work. I’m the kind of person who tries to get ahead in life, and not get stuck. I’m not here to hurt anyone. I just want to work.”

Jorge’s first court date is scheduled for late December. He still hasn’t told his son that he might be deported.

When he thinks about what happened at Motel 6, he feels frustrated and betrayed.

“After what they did, I’ll never go back to a Motel 6,” he says. “I paid to sleep there. They didn’t even return my money.”

Email antonia.farzan@newtimes.com or joe.flaherty@newtimes.com.

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