PHOENIX — On a hot day in March, hours before then-presidential candidate Donald Trump was set to lead a campaign rally in a Phoenix suburb, Jacinta Gonzalez wrapped a U-shaped lock around her neck and pinned herself to a van blocking the road.
Gonzalez, 31 at the time, was among a group of about 100 migrant-rights protesters staging a civil-disobedience action. Members from Puente Human Rights Movement, an Arizona-based migrant rights group, and Mijente, a national social-justice activist coalition, said they were taking a stance against Trump’s rhetoric about Latinos and migrants. Their goal was to shut down the road.
The clash between immigrant-rights groups and Trump and other immigration hard-liners reached a head that afternoon in a spectacle that played out on news clips streaming scenes of protesters blocking the roadway and chanting: “What do we want? Dump Trump” and “Get this clown out of our town.”
The town was Fountain Hills, a suburb patrolled by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, the agency led for decades by then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio. Long known for his immigration-enforcement tactics, Arpaio was at the time facing the scrutiny of a federal judge who said Arpaio and others had repeatedly disobeyed orders to stop policing tactics targeting Latinos that amounted to racial profiling.
Gonzalez, with the U-lock around her neck, was arrested that day along with other protesters. She was a U.S. citizen. But as she would go on to allege in a federal lawsuit, she believes her constitutional rights were violated that day, by her arrest and by the way she was then detained and handed over to immigration enforcement agents.
Nearly a year after that Fountain Hills anti-Trump rally, Gonzalez is talking about the day she was arrested. She believes her lawsuit is behind the new policy announced Friday night by recently elected Sheriff Paul Penzone.
Penzone, in a live-streamed press conference, said Maricopa County jails would no longer detain people flagged by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. He said prisoners would no longer be held as a “courtesy” for ICE beyond their designated sentence for the offense they were charged with.
He said his office had been advised by officials with the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office that his office faced “threat of litigation” because of the detainment procedures used under his predecessor Arpaio. “There’s no further authority to detain an individual …” he said. “We are following our legal obligation to process that individual for release.”
Penzone did not specify what lawsuit triggered the changes. It was unclear Saturday how many people the change might impact, or how many inmates typically are on 48-hour holds in Maricopa County jails.
Saturday afternoon, the Maricopa County Attorney’s Office released a brief statement on the change. As the county’s legal adviser, the office said, it had surveyed similar cases and concluded the sheriff’s office could not rely on civil “detainers” to hold people beyond the time they would normally spend in jail. The release, which did not quote County Attorney Bill Montgomery, cited a ruling in the case of Mercado vs. Dallas County, Texas. The statement did not mention Gonzalez’s pending suit, which was filed in December.
But Gonzalez believes her experience at the downtown jail helped lead to Penzone’s actions. Friday night, a couple of hours after Penzone’s announcement and minutes before she took part in a press conference with migrant and civil-rights groups outside the sheriff’s downtown jail, Gonzalez spoke with The Arizona Republic.
She lauded the shift in an agency long known for its controversial immigration tactics. She said she would continue fighting against deportations and to have ICE officials completely removed from the jail.
And she recalled the day she was arrested with two white protesters. Those two were later released, she said. She was detained for ICE officials overnight in solitary confinement at the Sheriff’s Office’s downtown jail.
“It was hard to be in solitary but it just made me realize that if I was treated that way — being light-skinned, speaking English and having a driver’s license — imagine what’s happening to other folks who are going through that jail,” she said.
Gonzalez believes her experience should stand as an example of how police and immigration officials will profile people based on the color of their skin or the sound of their last name.
Gonzalez said she chose to exercise her constitutional rights and stand up for undocumented migrants and other Latino citizens who are unfairly targeted. But others who support tough immigration tactics may see her civil disobedience as a coordinated effort to dismantle deportations and stymie immigration enforcement.
An activist’s approach
In 2011, Gonzalez was a Soros Justice Fellowship. According to the fellowship bio, she was a lead organizer for the New Orleans Workers’ Center for Racial Justice Congress of Day Laborers. She wrote reports documenting inhumane conditions in a Louisiana immigration detention center and exposed abuse at the South Louisiana Correctional Center.
Gonzalez is a U.S. citizen ”born in Mexico to (a) Mexican citizen father and United States citizen mother,” according to federal court records. She earned a degree from Wesleyan University and studied at studied at the School of International Training in Durban, South Africa, and the Universidade Metropolitana in Caracas, Venezuela.
The pedigree and experience gave her a keen understanding of the law.
“I have done civil-rights work for over 10 years now, so I knew my constitutional rights,” she told The Republic on Friday.
Gonzalez said she had never been arrested before. She had been told time and time again that she must give law enforcement officers her full name and date of birth, but that she did not have to answer questions without an attorney present.
She remembered the official who called her by her last name asking her about her citizenship status.
“Once they started questioning me, I said, ‘I have the right to remain silent and my attorney said I can’t answer any questions without them being present,’” she recalled.
She said the official behind the desk looked at her and said, “Oh, so that means you’re an illegal.”
Gonzalez remembered saying, “I don’t think that’s how it works, but I want to talk with my attorney.”
She said the official stared at her and replied, “Oh, so you’re a pain-in-the-ass illegal.”
Gonzalez said the man told her that since she refused to answer his questions, he was going to place an immigration detainer on her. She said the officer had her Louisiana driver’s license in front of him while he questioned her.
Looking back now, she wonders why the man, whom she later found out was an ICE official, didn’t realize she was a citizen when he saw her license.
“In Louisiana,” she said, “you need proof of citizenship to have a Louisiana driver’s license.”
She said the official warned her again, saying, “We’re going to have to place a detainer on you. Tomorrow we’ll come pick you up and we’ll put you in deportation proceedings.”
ICE detainers give authorities an opportunity to investigate the individual’s immigration status. Gonzalez said she stared at the man and didn’t say a word.
“I was exercising my constitutional right to remain silent,” she said.
Those rights would later become the subject of the lawsuit, filed by local attorneys and others at the Chicago-based National Immigrant Justice Center. It named both Arpaio and Maricopa County as defendants, though it would follow Penzone once he took office. Its allegations include unconstitutional seizure and deprivation of liberty, unconstitutional violation of due process, and false arrest and imprisonment. The suit asks for an unspecified amount in damages.
Maricopa County spokesman Fields Moseley said in December that county officials were unable to comment on pending litigation. Penzone did not mention Gonzalez’s case in his announcement Friday night.