The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) jails in Arizona is currently under investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice because the police officers working in those jails allegedly abuse 287(g), a section of immigration law enabling the federal government to deputize local police officers to enforce immigration law. However, the police officers are allegedly abusing their power and abuse the immigrant women detainees.
Respect/Respet, a local organisation that documents human and civil rights abuses, received handwritten letters from imprisoned immigrant women detailing grueling testimonials of physical mistreatment and abuse. For instance, one woman got her arm broken by one of the guards, and another woman got her jaw broken by a sheriff deputy. One of the letters implored for help saying, “Please help us, we’re in a tunnel without end, treated like dogs.”
So far, Maria del Carmen Garcia-Martinez, 46, allegedly an illegal undocumented immigrant, is the only woman to come out publicly with her story – on March 11th, six guards at the Estrella jail, a detention facility for women near Phoenix, were forcing her to put her fingerprint on a form she refused to sign. In doing so, they broke her left arm. The form was supposed to transfer her custody from the Estrella jail to immigration authorities. She was not treated for her injury until 20 hours later. She told reporters, “I know I’m not the only one, I met other women there who have gone through terrible things.”
Lt. Brian Lee, a spokesperson for the sheriff’s office, stated that Garcia-Martinez’s allegations are being investigated now, but he also stated that the sheriff deputies could use force if necessary to get a fingerprint on immigration documents as part of their job requirements. So on May 1, officials from the Justice Department and the Department of Homeland Security visited the sheriff’s office to pursue an investigation. Human and civil rights groups, like Respect/Respet and pro-immigrant group Puente, are fighting for Maricopa County Sheriff Joseph Arpaio’s 287(g) agreement with the federal government to be revoked. Arpaio’s jails are meant for people accused of serious crimes awaiting trial, but a significant amount of undocumented immigrants guilty of minor offenses end up there as well as they wait to be transferred to immigration authorities.
Arpaio has said, “Anybody can accuse me of anything like they are doing. I feel very comfortable with my position. We have nothing to hide. I’m very comfortable with what I’m doing and we’re going to continue to do our job.” He has been in office for sixteen years, and this is not the first time his jails have been investigated. In 1995, the Justice Department conducted a two year investigation which resulted in an agreement to eliminate the use of restraining chairs. In 1997, Amnesty International condemned the abuse of inmates in these facilities. However, this is the first time that Arpaio’s jails are being investigated based on abuse of power allegations to enforce immigration laws within the jails.
In spite of this, Arpaio receives a lot of support. A recent poll indicates that 68% of state voters favor Arpaio. Martha Payan, a member of American Citizens United, a group against amnesty for undocumented immigrants, said “He’s arresting all the illegals. He’s the only elected politician that we have in our state that is really willing to enforce the law. The more influx of illegals that keep coming in here, Americans are losing jobs and wages are going down.”
Yet, human rights violations are still human rights violations. Criminal defense attorney and pro-immigrant activist Antonia Bustamente has said, “The sad reality is that people are brutally mistreated in these jails. The vast majority cannot tell anybody because they get deported.”
Former lead singer of Rage Against the Machine turned activist, Zack De la Rocha, is a part of the growing protest movement against prison abuse in Arizona and said, “People are proving here that time and time again, wherever 287(g) is implemented the same horrible abuses occur: racial profiling, the stripping away of constitutional rights that protect both the undocumented and the documented.”
What’s happening in Arizona is one of many stories that just goes to show that we live in a country with a thriving prison-industrial complex, which shows a national trend of incarceration, racism and xenophobia. The large scale human rights violations in prisons are appalling and should put us all to shame. Even though President Obama shut down Guantanamo Bay, this country still has quite a long way to go as far as detention, due process, the Geneva Convention and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights are concerned.