Longform

Flushing Them Out

Daniela's world is very small. Though she was born in Mexico and traveled thousands of miles to Phoenix, she might never leave her neighborhood again. As an undocumented immigrant in Maricopa County, it's just too risky.

Her eldest child longs for the family to take a trip to California and see the ocean, but Daniela, the mother of four American citizens and one undocumented child, ages 5 to 13, doesn't travel farther than three blocks from her home. She's terrified.

Her husband, a welder, leaves for work before dawn. She never knows if he'll come home.

Daniela has very few friends — there's no one she can trust not to report her, especially now that the county sheriff has an illegal immigration hotline.

She can't leave her house to buy groceries; she's heard that the sheriff stations deputies at Food City.

Daniela lives down the street from a drug dealer, not a safe environment for a young family. She knows the guy's name, his address and she's seen him do business. But she can't call the police — they might take her away.

She's learned how to walk quietly, to stay in the shadows. The only place Daniela allows herself to go is her children's elementary school. She volunteers there six hours a day. She says it's her responsibility to be active in her children's education. But when she walks to school (she won't drive, ever) she makes sure to go with one of her few friend or her kids.

"You can't walk alone because if you are walking alone and you get taken, who is going to tell your family you are gone?" she says. "When you walk, you walk fast and you walk quiet. You don't talk to nobody. If someone is speaking to you, you don't say anything."

Daniela's children can't sleep through the night. They have nightmares about their parents getting caught and deported.

"We are the only support for my children. If we get arrested, we don't have another person to take care of my children," say says, starting to cry. "When they ask, 'What's going to happen to us, Mom, if you get arrested?' I lie to them. I say, 'We have a plan my love, my sweetie. Someone will take care of you and your brothers. Nothing is going to happen to you.' But it's a lie."

Daniela also wakes up at night, crying. In her dreams, she relives her border crossing. She came to America to meet up with her husband when she was 17, their 8-month-old baby in tow. In the border town of Agua Prieta, she was assaulted by a "coyote," slang for a person who smuggles immigrants across the border. The coyote stole her money, her identification, and tried to steal her baby.

"They tell me they will take my baby," she says in her slow, practiced English, from inside a classroom at her children's elementary school. That was 13 years ago, but from the look on her face, it could have been yesterday. "They say, 'You will never see your baby again.'"

To save her young son, Carlos, she made a decision that haunts her to this day: She paid a strange woman $600 to drive him safely to Phoenix. It was a painful gamble, but one that paid off. Carlos survived.

If Daniela were caught trying to save his life this way in Maricopa County, she'd be charged with human smuggling, the same as the coyote who haunts her nightmares. Today, victims of smuggling are treated the same as the perpetrators, thanks to an interpretation of the law that assigns the same level of responsibility to the criminals who smuggle and the people they sneak across the border.

There's good reason to be afraid. The situation for undocumented immigrants in Maricopa County is arguably the worst in the country, thanks to two men: County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

Roberto Reveles, the former president of immigrant rights group Somos America (We Are America), says there is no place in the country worse than Maricopa County.

"It's worse because here there is a statewide effort. The state Legislature is involved, the executive branch — the governor — is complicit, and at the local level, the worst in the country has to be the Maricopa County sheriff and county attorney, who are abusing their power to harass, intimidate, and create fear in the hearts of dark-skinned people," he says.

In October, when the owners of this newspaper were arrested for releasing information about a grand jury subpoena, no group in Maricopa County watched more closely than the undocumented immigrant community, says Antonio Bustamante, a Phoenix defense lawyer litigating a class-action suit against Arpaio and Thomas.

"It was a despicable, cowardly, gutless lack of character thing to do to any human being," he says. "And if they would do that to prominent members of the community — if you're a 'wetback' — you've got no chance."

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Megan Irwin
Contact: Megan Irwin