Feathered Bastard

Mother's Day: My Visit with Ciria Lopez-Pacheco in Maricopa County's Estrella Jail

Already, Lopez-Pacheco looks a few pounds lighter than in this January 9, MCSO mugshot.

Ciria Lopez-Pacheco looks longingly at children in the Estrella Jail visitation room who have been brought in to see their mothers. The activist I'm with, Lydia Guzman of the human rights organization Respect/Respeto, speaks Spanish to Lopez-Pacheco, and translates my questions. We ask her if her niece, who her kids -- a boy age 5, and a girl age 7 -- are staying with, will be bringing them to visit her.

She shakes her head no, and says she does not want them to visit.

"If I see them, I will want to touch them," says Lopez-Pacheco, "but if I touch them, I will lose my visitation privileges."

Indeed, on a large sign nearby where Lopez-Pacheco is handcuffed to a desk, in the midst of a small sea of women in stripes (Estrella is a women's jail) chained to desks, it clearly states that touching, handholding, kissing, etc., are all verboten.

The shy, petite woman before me has not seen or talked to her children since she was arrested January 9 as part of Sheriff Joe's latest anti-immigration sweep in the west Valley. Although she'd heard that a sweep was going on, she thought it was occurring a town or so over in Buckeye. That's why she thought it was safe to be out.

A masked sheriff's deputy, identifying himself as an immigration officer (likely, one of Joe's deputies cross-trained under the 287(g) agreement to act as ICE agents) approached her car. He told her she was pulled over because her lights were not on. She indicated that her lights were on, and flicked them on and off, finally leaving them off.

"Well, they're off now," the deputy told her.

Lopez-Pacheco was able to provide the deputy with proof of insurance and proper registration, but she had no driver's license to show him. Indeed, because Lopez-Pacheco is undocumented, she cannot legally obtain a driver's license in Arizona.

The deputy ran her name, and discovered a "failure to pay" warrant in the system. The 25-year-old mother of two says she blames herself for not paying the ticket. But the family had moved recently, and she let it slip.

(An El Mirage court quashed the warrant after she paid the ticket on January 16 during a court appearance there. The municipal judge ordered her released unconditionally. But she is still in jail on a hold from U.S. Immigration and Custom's Enforcement.)

She was ordered to step out if the car and placed under arrest. The ski-masked deputy spoke to her and to her children in Spanish. He told them that their mother was going to sit in the car with him and everything would be alright. But the two children were terrified, and cried loudly as Lopez-Pacheco was placed into the back seat of the cruiser. There was another deputy present, but that deputy was not wearing a mask.

(At this point, I should state, that I was not able to take notes, as this was a regular visit not a media visit, and I was not allowed to bring in paper or pen, much less a recorder. I did make notes shortly after leaving Estrella, and this account is drawn from my memory and those notes. Any inaccuracies are my fault, and my fault alone.)

The children continued to cry, as their mom attempted to calm them through a crack left open in the rear window of the cruiser. By this time, the cars were parallel, so she could speak to the boy and girl. The deputy was flustered by their crying, and ordered both kids to be quiet in Spanish, but they continued. At one point, the masked deputy got out of the car, got two stuffed toys out of the trunk, and gave them to the kids to try and placate them. But the children continued to cry for their mommy.

The deputy finally allowed the children to kiss and hug their handcuffed mother, before taking them back to their car. Finally, the deputy rolled up the back window completely, so the children could no longer talk to their mom.

Lopez-Pacheco states that her children were terrified of the masked deputy, especially her 7-year-old girl. When she learned that activist Sal Reza had filmed her children and interviewed them about what happened on camera, she said she was glad, so that people will be able to witness what had happened.

If Lopez-Pacheco were a legal resident or a U.S. Citizen, she'd be free by now, and back with her children. But she waits to see what ICE will do with her, if they will ship her to a federal detention facility. Hopefully, her treatment there will be better than in Joe Arpaio's medieval, corrupt gulags.

In Estrella, the food is hideous. Lunch, for instance, is stale bread with a slice of "white" ham, ham that Lopez-Pacheco's afraid to eat because she sees others get sick eating it. There's also an orange, and tapwater. For such skimpy repasts, Joe has begun charging those inmates who have money on their jail accounts, placed there by family or friends, $1.25 per meal.

Inmates can order items from the canteen and pay for them from their jail accounts, but the prices are often prohibitive. A small, traveler's size bottle of shampoo costs $9. A single pack of Kool-Aid cost $1. With what little money she had, Lopez-Pacheco bought toiletries and writing paper. She says she is hungry all the time, and seems to have gotten thinner during her incarceration to judge from her mugshot.

Though there is a TV set in a common area, it's been off since she's been there, and the inmates cannot turn it on. There are no windows, and she doesn't get to see the sun. Though the inmates are allowed one hour of exercise outside per day, the guards awaken them for this early in the morning, while it's still dark. When she was taken to her court appearance in El Mirage, she and the other women with court dates were stripped and cavity searched. This is done, she said, where all the male guards can watch them.

"It is very humiliating," whispers Lopez-Pacheco.

Also, because she was in court on Friday, she didn't get to eat that day.  

Life in Joe's jails is full of petty humiliations. There are no wall clocks, and of course, the prisoners have no watches. When the inmates ask the guards what time it is, the guards look at their watches, but say nothing.

Despite all this, Lopez-Pacheco is grateful that people are paying attention to her case. She says the group of women she hangs out with are all like her, all mothers who have ICE holds on them.

Our time is up, and we have to leave Lopez-Pacheco handcuffed to the desk. We ask her if she wants to say anything to people following her case.

"Tell everyone thank you, and give them kisses from me," she smiles wanly, as we leave her in the care of Sheriff Joe's finest.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons