Fearing that she was being tailed by agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement, a 27-year-old undocumented woman took shelter at a Head Start preschool today after realizing that three unmarked cars had followed her there.
Johana, who asked that her last name be withheld, said that she had first noticed an undercover officer parked outside her home in Mesa approximately two weeks ago. When she left that morning to drop her kids at school, she said, he followed her car until she got to a stoplight.
"Today, it was different," she said through an interpreter. "I noticed it was the same officer because I'd seen him before, but it looked like he was in a different car."
The officer appeared to call someone else, she said. Three unmarked cars — a Ford, a Chevrolet Impala, and a Dodge Ram — followed her as she dropped off her older kids at school in Tempe. The cars continued to trail her as she headed to Mesa to bring her 4-year-old daughter to the Head Start preschool located at A New Leaf's La Mesita campus on Main Street.
"They didn't come onto school property, but they were right here in the parking lot," she said.
"I thought this was all just a coincidence, but then it finally hit me that they were following me. They followed me to my child's school, then to my other child's school, and then they parked next to my vehicle."
Johana says that she informed one of the teachers at the preschool, and was told to stay in the building. That was a little after 8 a.m. Six hours later, she was still waiting at the preschool, trying to figure out where she'd go once it closed at 3:30.
Abigail Lopez, a friend of Johana's who had arrived to help out, said that she was trying to find a local church that would allow Johana to take sanctuary there along with her children. "She clearly can't go back to where she lives — it's not safe there," Lopez explained.
The two women noted that the Ford, which had been following Johana as she dropped off her kids, had circled the parking lot twice since she arrived at the school. That made Johana worry she could be arrested if she left the building.
Johana filmed a short video of one the men who she saw following her, which she shared with Phoenix New Times. A neighbor had also recorded a video of what appeared to be an undercover officer parked outside her house, and uploaded it to a site where undocumented immigrants share tips about potential ICE activity.
"It's really hard to tell whether it's ICE or not, because they did not get out of the car," Johana said. "I was able to see that was suited up with his gear and was wearing a nameplate."
ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O'Keefe couldn't immediately confirm whether the individual in the video was working for the agency.
However, she said, "We wouldn't be at a school."
Under ICE's sensitive locations policy, officers typically can't make arrests at schools or places of worship. However, back in March, an undocumented father of four was arrested shortly after he dropped off his daughter at her Los Angeles school.
It's not clear why any other law-enforcement agency would be looking for Johana. Her volunteer lawyer, Bill Richardson, says that she has no criminal record besides a recent traffic ticket for driving without a license. She has been living in Mesa for 12 years.
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"This is some who was raising a family, and like most undocumented migrants, just trying to keep her head down," he said. "Why would they have three officers looking for this gal when she's not even a high priority?"
Plus, he added, "This is Head Start, for crying out loud."
Having undercover officers waiting for undocumented immigrants outside schools used to happen during the early years of SB 1070, he recalled. But the practice seemed to have stopped — until now.
"This is every undocumented immigrant's nightmare," he said.