Five Arizona women painted a picture of abuse, terror, and civil rights violations during a special hearing Thursday before Congress about the impact of a state law that would make it a crime to be undocumented.
Fighting back tears, Celia Alejandra Alvarez, 30, described how she was detained in a workplace raid, physically abused, and incarcerated without medical care in February 2009.
“It’s true what’s happening in Arizona; we are discriminated against,” said Alvarez to a roomful of people. She said in an interview that her experience is an example of the climate that led to SB 1070 and the danger that this law poses to other families.
Alvarez, Silvia Rodríguez, Alma Mendoza, Silvia Herrera, and 10-year-old Katherine Figueroa were invited to testify at a special hearing on the impact of the new Arizona law SB 1070 by Congressman Raúl Grijalva (D-Arizona). During their visit they also met with members of the Obama administration’s labor department.
The delegation’s concerns were not limited to the potential impact of the law that will take effect July 29. The women’s testimony also underscored concerns about civil rights violations and abuse by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office that have been taking place in Arizona since the federal government signed a 287(g) agreement with that agency. The agreement, which has been limited since then, allowed the sheriff’s office to train 160 of its deputies to enforce immigration laws.
“I asked myself why did I suffer so much. I was only working. Each check I won was earned through my own sweat. My job was to clean highways and streets no matter if it was sunny or cold,” said Alvarez.
Alvarez filed a lawsuit in February against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office after being detained in a worksite raid at a landscaping company. She alleged that a deputy dislocated her jaw while trying to pull her out of her hiding place, and another one hit her with a clipboard for talking to other people who were being detained.
“I only have one question for President Obama and Congress: Aren’t we all human? My blood is red, and I imagine yours is too. And I ask myself, why do you ask us for papers to work and not to go to war?” said Alvarez.
“Many times one loses their life trying to find this dream, but the saddest is when one loses ones own dignity,” she said.
The mother of four spent three months in jail, where she said she was denied medical attention and was the victim of racial slurs and discrimination. What Alvarez regrets the most is the trauma her children suffered while she was incarcerated.
Kathy Figueroa, a 10-year-old who was separated from her parents during a raid last year, bore witness to the experience of children.
“It was very hard for me. Every time when I went to school I kept thinking that maybe I would see my parents when I came home,” she said addressing the congressman. “I would also have bad dreams, like the deputies were taking my family and me to jail.”
Figueroa has been known to the local Arizona media since she appeared in a YouTube video asking Obama, as the father of two daughters, to pass immigration reform and help her parents to be released. She also marched with other children to protest the actions of Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County.
“Not only are parents fighting back; their kids are doing the same thing to change the laws that are separating us from our parents,” she said.
“Please help us. Children don’t know what to do without their parents. I feel bad about the new law SB 1070. I can’t be with my family in my car because the police will take my family away to jail.”
Silvia Rodríguez, 22, represented the voice of undocumented students during the hearing. She and her family came to the United States with a visa when she was two years old, but it has since expired.
“I did not have control of where I was born, or what my parents did when I was two years old,” she said.
A couple of years ago her family left Arizona due to the anti-immigrant climate. She remained behind to finish her college education with two degrees in political science and Chicano studies. Despite having faced roadblocks to finance her education — in Arizona undocumented students have to pay out-of-state tuition — Rodríguez managed to get accepted at Harvard where she will go this fall to work on a Masters in education.
“It is ironic that the most prestigious university in the world has invited me in, has said that I’m welcomed, and believes that I’m worthy and of value to society. Yet the state that I call home criminalizes me, dehumanizes me and makes me feel unworthy of existing. Let alone of an education,” she said.
Rodríguez called on Congress to pass the DREAM Act, a law that would allow students like her to legalize their status. She said in an interview that she doesn’t believe in the concept of immigration reform as it is being framed today, with a focus on enforcement, and stressed the urgency of legalization for students.
Alma Mendoza, 40, a mother of three and a survivor of domestic violence for 15 years, described the impact SB 1070 is already having on people like her. In her neighborhood, she said, a husband killed his wife because she was afraid to call the police due to the new law.
“There are going to be many women who would fearfully remain silent. They won’t only be intimated by their husbands and partners but the police too,” she said.
Dr. Silvia Rodríguez, an organizer with the PUENTE movement, said the issue of human rights violations is not new for Arizona.
“We are living in a dangerous time in Arizona. If President Obama does not intervene on SB 1070 the whole country will be overcome with a climate of change, and that will be pure hate,” she said.
Herrera underscored that SB 1070 has already emboldened not just the police but individuals to discriminate. She said there are also concerns that the law could be enforced in the context of schools.
“Our children are on a constant emotional rollercoaster. Their innocence is being robbed by putting them in a situation where they have to take adult responsibilities,” said Dr. Silvia Herrera, who is also an organizer with PUENTE.
The PUENTE movement documented older allegations of abuse and racial profiling and sent them to the Department of Justice 18 months ago. The Department of Justice initiated an investigation into Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office.
“Where is that investigation? Why does it continue to be pending?” Herrera asked.
The idea of testimonies from the Arizona delegation came about after a group of women from across the country arrived in Arizona to gather testimony about the impact of SB 1070.
“We are going to be asking the Obama administration to become part of the legal challenge that is necessary (against SB 1070),” said Congressman Grijalva.
“It is not a question of criminality in Arizona. It’s a question of fairness and justice in Arizona,” said Congressman Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill., who criticized the administration’s decision to send the National Guard to the border and advocate enforcement only.
Six congresspersons attended the hearing on Thursday.
“You are showing yourselves to be true Americans,” Jared Polis, D-Colo., told the women at the hearing. “It is my hope that sooner rather than later the American people, who are good people, would allow the laws to catch up with reality and welcome you.”
– Valeria Fernandez, New America Media