On Friday, March 21, 2008, at around 4:30 p.m., I found myself in the middle of one of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigration sweeps in a Latino neighborhood in Phoenix. I was on my way to Cave Creek-a suburb outside of Phoenix-to meet with two Latino day laborers who are my clients in a First Amendment lawsuit. Despite being an immigrants' rights advocate and ACLU attorney, I couldn't believe what I saw first-hand that night.
Sheriff Arpaio had set up a circus: Standing in a large commercial parking lot along one of Phoenix's main roads, the Sheriff and his deputies announced to the media and the public that they would engage in a neighborhood sweep, stopping and arresting those suspected of violating traffic and safety laws. Behind Sheriff Arpaio were sheriff's department trailers, vans and cars - many emblazoned with the words: "Do Not Enter: Illegal Aliens." Dozens of deputies were preparing to drive around a predominantly Latino neighborhood and pick up whoever they found suspicious. Helicopters flew overhead. You could feel the panic in the air.
People from the community concerned about what Sheriff Arpaio was up to began to arrive in the parking lot. A group of anti-immigrant protesters on motorcycles and holding signs began to surround the parking lot as well. I remember at least one shouted "spics, go home; this is our country," while aggressively inching closer and closer to the many Latino community residents and families who opposed the Sheriff's sweep.
The deputies began driving into the neighborhood, terrorizing the community until almost 11 p.m. that night. Young Latino men were brought into the parking lot in handcuffs. They looked terrified as they arrived in the back of sheriff's vehicles.Stadium lights were everywhere. The media was on-site interviewing deputies and concerned residents.
I felt like I was dreaming and in fact wondered if the men in handcuffs felt like that too. Were we in a movie? Why had they been brought to a parking lot instead of the downtown jail?
And they must have wondered why there were so many people present shouting, "No hables. Permanece callado. Tienes derecho a un abogado." I was one of those people shouting that these men remain quiet, and that they assert their rights. But as I stood there shouting for what seemed like an eternity, I could not help but feel fearful myself. As a first-generation Mexican-American, the daughter of Mexican immigrants and someone who grew up in a Latino neighborhood-much like the one being targeted that night-I thought of how this could happen to my father, my brother-in-law and my cousins, who every single day fear that they will be stopped or questioned because of the color of their skin and their accents.
Today, in an effort to put an end to this culture of fear born from rampant discrimination and racial profiling in Maricopa County, five Latinos and Somos America, a Latino community-based organization, sued Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and Maricopa County. The lawsuit was filed on their behalf by the national ACLU, the ACLU of Arizona, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) and lead counsel Steptoe & Johnson LLP.
I hope that our plaintiffs find justice. The fear that pervaded that Friday in that Phoenix neighborhood didn't end that night. It's a fear that persists every single day for people who are, or appear to be, Latino or speak Spanish in Maricopa County. We cannot stand by and let this continue to happen in the United States.