PHOENIX -- At age nine, U.S.-born Kathy Figueroa became the public face of hundreds of children impacted by immigration raids and family separation in Arizona. In a YouTube video she pleaded with President Barack Obama for the release of her parents.
It was a bold move for a young child whose undocumented relatives were living in the shadows at a time when immigration raids were taking place in neighborhoods and workplaces on an everyday basis.
Four years later, a turn of events has the now 13-year-old going from fear and uncertainty to thinking about what dress she will wear to her Quinceañera.
Carlos and Sandra Figueroa have been in deportation proceedings since 2009 when Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies arrested them in an immigration sweep at a local car wash in Phoenix.
But this week, the family got unexpected news: U.S Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) closed their deportation case.
The decision is the latest in a series of cases that the federal agency has decided to close, ending deportation proceedings against dozens of undocumented immigrants who were arrested in Arizona’s immigration raids.
“After conducting a comprehensive review of the Figueroas’ immigration case, U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has chosen to exercise prosecutorial discretion in this matter,” authorities said Monday in a statement.
“There’s still hope, that even the most difficult cases can be resolved,” said Sandra Figueroa, 38, from her home, just a few hours after she got the news.
ICE was responding to a special request by Delia Salvatierra, an immigration attorney who recently took the Figueroas’ case. Salvatierra has been challenging the way local prosecutors are enforcing state laws: They have been charging undocumented workers with felony identity theft. If convicted, these undocumented immigrants would have a felony on their criminal record, something that could hurt their changes at legalization.
“ICE chose to do the right thing,” said Salvatierra about this week’s decision to close the case. “Maricopa County is putting ICE in a very difficult position, because normally ICE doesn’t look into the conviction; they accept it at face value.”
Salvatierra believes that the fact that the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) is suing Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) for racial profiling might have influenced their decision to close the case.
The lawsuit filed by the DOJ alleges that the Criminal Employment Squad (CES), a unit at the Sheriff’s Office, conducts “raids at worksites in an effort to arrest undocumented persons who are working without proper authorization.”
“These raids are conducted in a manner that results in the seizure of Latinos without reasonable suspicion,” according to the DOJ.
Meanwhile, a federal judge in May found Arpaio’s agency responsible for engaging in the racial profiling of Latinos – the result of a separate lawsuit brought by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
ICE would not comment on whether the recent ruling had any bearing on their decision to close this and other recent cases.
“U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) is focused on sensible, effective immigration enforcement that prioritizes the removal of criminal aliens and egregious immigration law violators,” said ICE in a prepared statement.
With the DOJ lawsuit still pending, Salvatierra argued that it would be inconsistent for the federal government to challenge the constitutionality of Arpaio’s raids and sweeps, and then deport the people who were impacted by them. Doing this, she said, could hurt their case in court.
Over the last few months, Salvatierra has had 35 cases closed administratively, many of them involving state identity theft charges or sweeps conducted by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
She said the decision in the Figueroa case is not out of the ordinary, but it is more visible due to the public support the family has received, a petition campaign launched by the PUENTE movement and Kathy’s notoriety in the local media.
Carlos García, director of PUENTE, said that engaging the public and putting a human face on these cases has helped close about 40 cases related to Arpaio’s immigration sweeps. PUENTE is now working to replicate this strategy in other deportation cases.
“We use the same strategy of telling the story and giving the public something to do so they can help,” said García. “We show ICE that these are not criminals; we show that they’re families like the Figueroas.”
In June, PUENTE had at least 15 cases closed that involved people arrested by MCSO since February in the Sportex Apparel worksite raid.
The Figueroas’ deportation has been suspended indefinitely. Similar to young people who have received a deportation reprieve from the Obama administration through deferred action, the Figueroas will now be able to get a work permit -- though they won’t have a path to a green card.
Carlos Figueroa and his wife continue to work at the same car wash where they were arrested four years ago, which is now under new ownership. But with no path to a green card, Carlos Figueroa said, “We have to hope for immigration reform.”
Salvatierra believes that if Congress approves immigration reform this year, there should an exception for those impacted by the state immigration laws in Arizona whose purpose was to “uproot” people.
On Wednesday, the family will go in front of a federal immigration judge to confirm their consent for the case to be closed. The news comes as a great relief to the family, who have been losing sleep over the last few months in anticipation of the outcome of the judge’s ruling this week.
But they know that despite the publicity they’ve gotten, their story is not unique.
“There are other families like ours out there, that haven’t had the same opportunities and are being deported,” said Sandra Figueroa.
The Figueroas are part of the PUENTE movement that has been calling on ICE to grant prosecutorial discretion to families facing deportation, one case at a time. The group held a protest Tuesday morning outside the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office to ask Sheriff Joe Arpaio to stop pursuing felony charges against undocumented immigrants who were arrested in Arpaio’s raids.
“Even if this is over, we’re going to continue fighting,” said Kathy.
Valeria Fernández is a director and co-producer with filmmaker Dan DeVivo of the documentary Two Americans that features the story of the Figueroa family.
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