PHOENIX — After three months of working at Lam’s Seafood Market for $7.65 an hour as a cashier, Noemi Romero had finally saved the $465 it would take to apply for President Barack Obama’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, an initiative launched to shield from deportation young immigrants brought to the United States as children.
That was before the hard-line immigration policies of Maricopa County — made infamous in 2010 for its hostile attitude toward undocumented immigrants — torpedoed her dream of legalizing her status.
Romero, brought to the state by her parents when she was 3, did not even realize she was undocumented until she was 16, when her friends began getting driver’s licenses. Her parents told her she couldn’t. “You’re not from here,” they explained.
After graduating from high school, she found herself in limbo. She couldn’t afford to attend college in Arizona, one of a handful of states that explicitly bar undocumented students from receiving financial aid and paying in-state tuition rates. And without a Social Security number, she couldn’t work. She spent her days helping her mother babysit.
So when the Obama administration launched DACA in 2012, it seemed as if an escape hatch had finally appeared — a way for eligible young immigrants like her, with no criminal record, to come out of the shadows.
But first, she needed a way to come up with the money for the application fee — no small feat in a household that struggled to pay for rent, groceries and gas. Desperate, she asked her mother, Maria Gomez, if she could apply for a job under her name and “borrow” her Social Security number. Gomez, although also undocumented, was permitted by the U.S. government while she was fighting her deportation in the courts.
On Jan. 17, 2013, Romero was working the cash register at Lam’s Seafood Market, planning to take off from work the next week so she could meet with an immigration lawyer. She saw a man in a black collared shirt and dress pants walk in and present a badge to the manager.
Moments later, Romero and 21 others were rounded up, herded to the front of the store, searched, interrogated about their papers and handcuffed — swept up in one of Maricopa County’s trademark workplace raids, engineered by Sheriff Joe Arpaio to catch undocumented immigrants using fraudulent identities to work in the United States.
Eventually Romero pleaded guilty to criminal impersonation, a felony. She says that more crushing than the two months she spent in a county jail, being addressed by the guards solely by her bunk number, and the additional month she was in the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement staving off deportation was losing her DACA eligibility. The $465 she had saved for her application instead went into her jail commissary.
“When I was still in there, I thought, ‘If I get out, the first thing I’m going to do is apply and get it and start working with a Social [Security number] that’s mine,’” she said. She realized only later that she was no longer eligible. “To this day, I’m wondering why it happened. Just because of this little thing, I have a criminal record. To me, it’s not a crime, but to those people, it is.”
In 2010, Maricopa County was seen as the hotbed of anti-immigrant sentiment after the Arizona legislature passed SB 1070, a measure that required local police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspected to be in the United States illegally, a measure that opponents argued would inevitably invite racial profiling. It was one of a series of hard-line laws in Arizona meant to encourage self-deportation, whereby undocumented immigrants leave the country willingly because conditions become unbearable. Political figures in Arizona, among them Arpaio — the self-styled “toughest sheriff in America” — and then-Gov. Jan Brewer staked their political reputations on taking immigration enforcement into their own hands, and heavy-handed tactics, like Arpaio’s workplace raids, added to a climate of fear and anxiety among immigrants.
Five years later, the prospects for undocumented immigrants in Maricopa County remain fragile, as Romero’s situation illustrates. But the crackdown in Arizona has not quite worked as intended. Even as the undocumented population in Arizona plummeted by 40 percent from 2009 to 2012, according to the Pew Hispanic Research Center, the efforts to drive out the immigrant community have prompted a backlash, inspiring a new attitude of defiance, according to immigrants interviewed this month in Phoenix.
“It created this massive movement to fight back, and that was more significant than the exodus because you had protests every day, you had kids walking out of their classes, you had people showing up at the state Capitol who had never protested before,” said Petra Falcon, founder of the Latino civic advocacy organization Promise Arizona. “What’s come out of that is new organization and new coalitions.”
Romero, now 23, is part of a class action lawsuit, led by civil rights group Puente Arizona, against the sheriff’s office, that has won an injunction to halt the workplace raids. If she and her fellow plaintiffs win their case, it’s possible that their criminal records will be expunged.
“I can’t just give up,” she said. “There has to be another way.”
Arizona's actions have not been without cost. The Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank, estimated in an economic impact study that Phoenix lost $141 million in tourism and convention industry business in the four months after SB 1070 was passed. A federal judge ruled in 2013 that Arpaio’s department engaged in racial profiling in its immigration enforcement practices and appointed a monitor to institute reforms. The sheriff last week agreed to civil sanctions for failing to comply with the court orders, offering to set up a restitution fund of $300,000 for the victims of his office’s immigration practices.
For a certain portion of Phoenix’s immigrant community, Obama’s executive actions on immigration have offered a glimmer of hope for a more stable future, even as they are being challenged in the courts.
"There have been a lot of positive things that have occurred in Arizona that have pushed back against the passage of the bill," said James Garcia, a Hispanic-American playwright and communications consultant in Phoenix.
He noted the recall of state Sen. Russell Pearce, the architect of the legislation, and the way in which the business and arts communities have worked to repair Arizona's tarnished reputation.
“There’s still a real danger and risk of being undocumented in the United States,” he said. “What I don’t think exists quite nearly to the depth that it did is the terror and fear.”
Gerardo Torres, who has lived in Arizona as an undocumented gay man for more than 20 years, said that although he believes that the state was where the “hateful racist cancer” against immigrants really took hold, it was also a wake-up call to immigrants around the country to get engaged in changing the laws.
“That’s one of the biggest things that made us stand up and resist and come out of the shadows,” he said. “Because we got tired of all of it. You cannot be silent when there’s injustice.”
Maria Ramirez, a 47-year-old undocumented immigrant who has lived in Arizona for 14 years, said the climate today is a far cry from the terror in 2010 after SB 1070’s passage, when entire families packed up their possessions to move to other states or go back to Mexico. Others went into hiding.
“They stopped going to work. They stopped driving. They stopped taking their kids to school,” she said. “I still have a few friends who are still staying at home because they’re scared.”
Ramirez, nevertheless, decided to stay for her three children and battle the nation’s immigration laws. She has testified before Phoenix leaders to get a law passed that would issue local IDs to immigrants that they could present to local enforcement and agitated for Obama’s deferred action programs.
The results were bittersweet. While her three children have all successfully been granted DACA status, she does not qualify for the Deferred Action for Parents of Americans and Lawful Permanent Residents program.
“I thought that with all the work that had been done and put in by everyone and me, that it would be my chance, but it didn’t work out,” she said, wiping away tears.
“Nothing’s going to change that I’m undocumented. The reality is that people are coming after undocumented people, and I do have that fear that something can change today, tomorrow. Something can change in a day,” she said. “But I’m going to keep fighting while I can. I’m not going to stay at home and let it make me feel intimidated or ashamed.”