On a hot Wednesday in June, Manuel Rodriguez-Juarez, a 33-year-old landscaper, got into an argument with his live-in girlfriend.
While he waited for her to cool down, he decided to check into a $45-a-night room at a nearby Motel 6 on Maryvale’s southern fringe, where fast-food restaurants and gas stations catering to travelers passing through on Interstate 10 sit alongside neighborhood panaderias and marisquerias.
The front-desk clerk told him that he needed to show identification in order to reserve a room. Rodriguez-Juarez handed over the only thing he had — a Mexican voter ID card.
Six hours later, he was lying on the bed, watching TV, when he heard a knock at the door.
He opened it. Three agents from Immigrations and Customs Enforcement were waiting for him.
When asked, Rodriguez-Juarez admitted that he wasn’t authorized to be in the United States. He’s currently being held at the immigration detention center in Florence while his lawyer, Juan Rocha, tries to get him asylum.
While the case is pending, Rocha is trying to figure out something that’s been bothering him: Did someone at Motel 6 tip off ICE?
There's certainly reason to think so.
A Phoenix New Times review of court records found that between February and August, ICE agents made at least 20 arrests at Motel 6s, showing up roughly every two weeks. (Since many of the documents we reviewed contained only vague details about where ICE encountered an individual, the actual number is likely even higher.)
All took place at one of two Motel 6 locations: 4130 North Black Canyon Highway or 1530 North 52nd Drive. Both are in predominantly Latino neighborhoods. New Times was unable to find records indicating that ICE conducted arrests at other local motels during this same time period.
The statement of probable cause for Rodriguez-Juarez's case filed with the U.S. District Court is vague, noting briefly that ICE officers were “following a lead.” And Department of Homeland Security records state only that ICE’s Phoenix Mobile Criminal Alien Team Unit had “received information that Rodriguez-Juarez was checked into room #214.”
“I’m thinking to myself, how would they know that?” Rocha said. “The client said he gave them a Mexican ID card — but there’s people who visit the U.S. all the time who have Mexican IDs. How does that establish that you’re here without authorization?”
He added, “I’m assuming it was a Motel 6 person — I don’t know who else would have told them — thinking, ‘Hey, this guy doesn’t speak English, he has a Mexican ID card, I’m going to call ICE.’”
Management at both Motel 6 locations directed questions to the corporation’s media hotline. Repeated calls over a period of several weeks were not returned.
Unofficially, though, employees at both locations said it was standard practice to share guest information with ICE.
“We send a report every morning to ICE — all the names of everybody that comes in,” one front-desk clerk explained. “Every morning at about 5 o’clock, we do the audit and we push a button and it sends it to ICE.”
Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe, a spokesperson for ICE’s Phoenix division, declined to comment on whether the agency is in the habit of reviewing hotel guest lists, or investigating tips sent in by Motel 6 employees.
“I wouldn’t be able to confirm how we are getting our information. Those are investigative techniques that we wouldn’t be able to talk about,” she said.
“If hypothetically we were somewhere — if we did administratively arrest some folks — that happens all the time. We conduct targeted enforcement operations every day.”
Naturally, rumors run rampant. Denise Aguilar, a Chandler-based immigration attorney, said that one of her clients is currently being held in ICE custody alongside several others who were detained at the same Motel 6.
“They have heard (no telling how valid the info is) that ICE is paying $200 per person for the front-desk clerk to report,” she wrote in an email.
Both locations are corporate-owned, dispelling one of the other popular theories: That a local franchise owner is collecting a week’s rent in advance, then calling ICE so that they can rent out the room to someone else.
One thing that we do know: Motel 6 is extremely enthusiastic about cooperating with law enforcement, and, elsewhere in the country, has been criticized by the ACLU for sharing guest lists with local police.
Is that happening in Phoenix?
“On occasion and through informal contacts, various hotels and motels have shared their guest lists with officers,” Phoenix Police department spokesperson Jonathan Howard wrote in an email.
He declined to specify whether that included the two Motel 6 locations where recent ICE raids have taken place.
Thanks to a 2015 Supreme Court decision, the city can’t require motels to turn over that information without a warrant. But if a motel chooses to do so voluntarily, that’s up to the owner.
And front desk staff at multiple Motel 6 locations in the Valley said that they regularly share guest information with local police.
“I don’t know how it works, but if you check in and you have a warrant, you’re going to get picked up,” one young woman explained.
Even without an outstanding warrant, though, undocumented people are at risk.
Phoenix immigration attorney Ray Ybarra Maldonado said he’s had a number of clients get picked up by ICE after local police showed up at a motel where they were staying, looking for someone else.
“They get the list of people who are staying there, and they run them through to see who is wanted for warrants. If they have someone with a warrant, and they find someone who is undocumented, they call ICE,” Maldonado said.
“It still pisses me off when I hear about it,” he added.
One of Maldonado’s clients, Alfonso Gutierrez-Tovar, was picked up by ICE at the Motel 6 on North Black Canyon Highway in May and deported last month. The statement of probable cause included alongside the criminal complaint says that ICE’s Mobile Criminal Alien Unit was “following a lead” when they “encountered” him.
Maldonado said his client was confused and shocked that ICE knew he was at the hotel: Gutierrez-Tovar was convinced that a colleague had called ICE.
“But then, reading the report again, I was like, ‘Are you certain about that?’” Maldonado recalled telling his client. “It just didn’t make any sense. The coincidence would have been too much. He only stayed there one night, and they had the exact room number.”
“I thought it was too much of a coincidence. It was weird,” Maldonado added.
In roughly a third of the cases New Times identified, court documents say that ICE encountered a suspect during a “knock and talk.”
That means that officers showed up without a search warrant, knocked on the door, and asked permission to enter the motel room.
“It’s not some big conspiracy,” ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said. “If they’re given consent, then they can come in. If they’re not, then they can come back with a search warrant.”
Cintia de Leon was supposed to pick up her husband and nephew from the Motel 6 at 4130 North Black Canyon Highway at 7:30 a.m. on August 10. But according to her husband, four ICE officers arrived first. They knocked on the door and asked for her nephew, Jose Escobar Tovar, whose name the room was under.
“He asked, 'How did you find me here?' de Leon recalled her husband telling her in his phone call from detention. "And they said, ‘You know what, you don’t have the right to talk.’”
The ICE officers then asked de Leon’s husband, 36-year-old Jose Granados Sanchez, if he had citizenship documents. He said no, and they arrested both of them. Escobar Tovar was deported three weeks ago and de Leon’s husband remains in an immigrant detention center in Eloy.
"I was shocked when they told me that. I couldn’t believe it, and until this day, I still cannot believe it,” she said. "I don’t know if they’re getting something out of all this, turning people in, or what’s the deal."
If officers were going around knocking on the doors of anyone who looked Hispanic or had a Latino surname, that would raise concerns about racial profiling, Phoenix-based attorney Robert McWhirter said. A client of his, Jose Renteria Alvarado, was arrested at the Motel 6 on North 52nd Drive in June after officers conducted a “knock and talk.”
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However, if ICE agents are reviewing hotel guest lists and comparing them with Department of Homeland Security databases — “presumably, if they saw the name Conor O’Malley and he was on their list of people who have been deported” — then that’s another story altogether.
“We just don’t know enough about what’s going on,” he concluded.
Still, he added, “I’ll tell you one goddamned thing for sure — I’m not staying at a Motel 6 from now on.”
Update: After publication of this story, Motel 6 acknowledged they'd been sharing guest information with ICE, but said that the policy had been implemented on the local level without the knowledge of senior management and was being discontinued. More details here.