4 people who were arrested after a Phoenix BLM protest wound up in ICE custody — and it shows the risk of protesting as an immigrant

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Phoenix police arrested more than 100 people after a protest for racial justice on May 30. BI
  • More than 100 people in Phoenix were arrested and charged with felonies for rioting after a Black Lives Matter protest on May 30.

  • Although all the charges were later dismissed as baseless, ICE detained four of the arrestees who were not US citizens and threatened them with deportation.

  • Three of the immigrants arrested are recipients of the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy. The fourth was deported to Mexico.

  • Their experience underscores the different treatment immigrants receive in the US criminal justice system.

  • View more episodes of Business Insider Weekly on Facebook.

More than 100 people were arrested in downtown Phoenix after a Black Lives Matter protest on May 30.

Some people were leaving the protest. Others were just passing through. But when the Phoenix police blockaded several streets in the downtown area, it did not matter. 

Máxima Guerrero, Johan Montes, Roberto Cortes, and Jesus Orona Prieto were four of those arrested that night. We gathered some of their cell phone and social media footage to tell the story of what happened to them after they were pulled out of their cars at gunpoint, handcuffed, and charged with a Class 5 felony for rioting.

Because none of the four are US citizens, their arrests were only the start of a perilous journey that led to them being held by US Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE.

Their treatment, contrasted with that of the US citizens arrested that night, underscores the hardships noncitizens face in the US criminal justice system, and how the effects of one night can linger long after they’re released from custody.

Hundreds of people joined the Phoenix protests over Memorial Day weekend.

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Four of those arrested were not US citizens, and their detainment set of a long and frustrating experience with the criminal justice system. BI

In Phoenix, Memorial Day weekend was filled with protests against the deaths of George Floyd and Dion Johnson, an Arizona local who’d been killed on May 25. 

On the third night of those protests, Guerrero, an activist who works for the Puente Human Rights Movement, was out as a legal observer documenting the night’s events for her job.

As she was leaving the protest, police stopped her and arrested her.  

“We were prevented from leaving,” Guerrero said. “Police officers get out of their vehicle and they’re like, ‘Put your hands up, get out of the car.'”

Guerrero, 30, was brought to the US illegally when she was 5. Getting arrested was a threat to her temporary legal status in the United States under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, which shields at least 450,000 people from deportation, unless they get in trouble with the law. 

“I was sent to ICE along with a few other people,” Guerrero said. “There’s no reason that I should have ever been arrested in the first place.”

Fernando Lopez, 22, and his two childhood friends Johan Montes, 23, and Roberto Cortes, 22, were also at the protest. 

“We were just kind of following around the crowd, just seeing what was happening next, trying to stay out of the fire side,” Montes said. “They were throwing things back and forth.”

By 11:30 p.m., other protesters Insider spoke to said they were tear-gassed and shot with rubber bullets. 

Around that time, with helicopters whirring overhead, police announced orders to disperse and threatened to arrest those who didn’t follow their commands.

Police began arresting people as the crowd dispersed.

Police soon made good on those threats, arresting people even as the crowd was dispersing and departing.  

Lopez and his friends all jumped into Montes’ car. Montes was driving them to their own car. While waiting at a stoplight at First Avenue and West Fillmore Street, the police arrived. 

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Cell phone footage from Johan Montes shows Phoenix police pulling protesters out of their cars and arresting them. Johan Montes

“We got blocked in on a one-way street, and then from there, it was like five or six different cars in a line that just got taken out of their cars,” Lopez said.

The three childhood friends all pulled out their phones and recorded the police force a family out of a Hummer and draw “their weapons on all of the children and everyone.” 

The police went car by car until it was their turn. 

Without explanation, Lopez and his friends were transferred to a nearby precinct, and then to the Maricopa County Fourth Avenue Jail alongside more than 100 other people. 

The question on everyone’s mind that night was why they had been placed under arrest as they were attempting to go home.

ICE was soon notified that four immigrants were among those arrested.

Soon after all the arrests, ICE was notified that four immigrants were detained.

Like Guerrero, Montes and Cortes both have temporary immigration status under the DACA policy.

“When we first got arrested, it didn’t feel real. We legit didn’t do anything wrong,” Lopez said. “I was calm because I knew I was a citizen.”

But when they got to jail, Lopez started fearing for the friends he’d known since grade school, because of their immigration status. 

“They gave us this little sheet of the list that was going to have what we were going to go through at jail. One of the bullet points was an ICE interview,” he said. “I remember seeing Johan chained up, like you see in TV.”

Montes remembers that moment as being “degrading.” 

“I really did feel like I was a walking criminal at the moment,” he said.

Police were found to have “copied and pasted” the same charges across dozens of reports.

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Fernando Lopez, a US citizen who attended the protests, said he feared for his friends who got arrested because of their immigration status. Anna Clare Spelman/Alonso Parra

When court hearings began the next day, Maricopa County judges flagged that police “copied and pasted” the same probable cause statement across dozens of reports.

“What you had was Phoenix PD, basically just copying and pasting everything so they could arrest anybody. But the constitution doesn’t allow for that,” said Armando Nava, a criminal defense attorney that defended at least 14 of the arrestees. “The Constitution says you still have to do these things and we don’t care if it’s cumbersome.”

The judges ordered that most people be released. 

In a statement to Insider in July, Phoenix police spokesperson Mercedes Fortune said that “there were mistakes made on some of the arrests from Saturday, May 30, 2020.”

But not everyone got to go home after all charges had been dropped. Instead of being released with everyone else, Guerrero, Montes, Cortes, and Orona Prieto were handed over to ICE, which meant they now faced the possibility of deportation.

For them, it was a striking reminder that American citizens and noncitizens face different consequences in the US law enforcement system.

“I think that we have argued for a long time that immigrants don’t have the same due process rights as American citizens, and that’s not OK,” said ACLU deputy director of immigration policy Andrea Flores. “The Constitution protects all of us.”

Three of the immigrants were released, but one was transferred to an ICE detention center.

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Johan Montes called his detainment “degrading” and said it felt “like I was a walking criminal at the moment.” Anna Clare Spelman Alonso Parra

Eventually, three of the immigrants were released from ICE, but one of them, Orona Prieto, was taken to a detention center 65 miles away from Phoenix. 

Fired up by the news of Guerrero’s arrest, hundreds of activists gathered outside the local ICE office to rally for her release from custody. By Monday, all three DACA recipients were released with ankle monitors shackled onto their legs, transmitting their locations directly to ICE.

“They’re now under intense supervision, and they’re facing the possibility of removal proceedings in front of an immigration judge,” said Ray Ybarra Maldonado, Guerrero and Montes’ lawyer. 

Guerrero told Insider that she still felt lucky since Orona Prieto, who did not have the protection of DACA, was immediately shuttled to Florence Correctional Center, 65 miles away from Phoenix.

Orona Prieto, 26, crossed the border in February, paying a coyote, or smuggler, $4,000. He said he faced death threats in Mexico. 

Orona Prieto said he did not attend the May 30 protest. He had been on his way home from a date with his girlfriend when police pulled them out of their car at a stoplight.  

From the Florence Detention Correctional Center, Orona Prieto told Insider over the phone in Spanish that he was in shock when he got arrested.

“They put handcuffs on me and put me in a police car,” he said. “I asked why they were arresting me. They didn’t say anything or even tell me my rights.”

Orona Prieto’s lawyer, Maite Garcia from the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project, told Insider that “his arrest was unlawful because he and his girlfriend did not violate any laws” and like many others, they were pulled out of their car at gunpoint. 

“Jesus is a person of color who was a passenger in a vehicle stopped at a light near a protest,” Garcia said.  

At the Florence Correctional Center, coronavirus had been spreading among inmates for months. 

“We are in quarantine and they only let us out for one hour out of the room to the common area, so we can talk on the phone or take a shower. All day one is sad,” Jesus said. 

Advocates say immigrants get different treatment in the criminal justice system depending on where they live.

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Sheriff Joe Arpaio attends a rally by then-candidate Donald Trump, October 4, 2016, in Prescott Valley, Arizona. ROBYN BECK/AFP via Getty Images

Advocates we spoke to say the experiences of people like Orona Prieto, Cortes, Montes, and Guerrero largely depend on where they live. 

“States like Arizona, Alabama, and Georgia, are states that have passed state level laws. That creates the ability for state law enforcement to go out and pursue immigrants,” said Jorge Loweree, policy director at the American Immigration Council.

Former Sheriff Joe Arpaio spearheaded Arizona’s crackdown on immigrants for over two decades. He did things like target Latino drivers for traffic violations and hand them over to immigration authorities. 

In 2010, he gained notoriety when Arizona passed a law that required Maricopa County police to ask for the immigration status of anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. 

“Nobody says I can’t go out tomorrow and do what I plan on doing and lock up people who violate the law and if they are illegal aliens, we are going to take care of that, who is saying that we can’t do that?,” Arpaio said in a 2010 press conference in Phoenix.

Arpaio refused orders to stop racial profiling of suspected noncitizens, and was convicted in 2017. President Donald Trump pardoned the sheriff a month later. And many say the impact of his policies is still felt today. 

“I don’t think it’s easy to be an immigrant anywhere in the US at this particular moment in time” Loweree said.

After two months in detention, Orona Prieto was deported to Mexico on July 29 without a chance to consult his lawyer or file an appeal.

“Quite frankly, we need to be able to have the criminal justice system give the person due process before immigration gets their hands on them and prematurely deport somebody before they’ve had an opportunity to defend themselves in court,” said Ybarra Maldonado.

ICE spokesperson Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe told Insider that because he entered the country illegally, he was already violating US law. She added that the cooperation between ICE and local law enforcement “is essential to maintaining public safety.”

But many state and local governments,as well as advocates, disagree and say that the corporation fosters fear and distrust of local law enforcement. 

“If a community operates with ICE and cooperates with them and notifies them of any routine arrest, when somebody comes in with a different immigration status, then that is absolutely an extra fear that immigrants have,” Flores said. 

Montes is still fighting to remain in the country.

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After the three DACA recipients were released from custody, they were forced to wear ankle monitors on their legs that transmitted their locations directly to ICE. Anna Clare Spelman Alonso Parra

ICE terminated the immigration cases for Guerrero and Cortes, but Montes is still fighting to remain in the country. 

On June 18, still wearing an ankle monitor, Guerrero spoke to a crowd celebrating a Supreme Court decision upholding DACA.

“We need immigrants like myself DACA recipients like myself to continuously feel safe in our communities,” she told a crowd that gathered in front of the ICE office in Phoenix. 

Not long after that day, she and Cortes got their monitors taken off.

But Montes, who was brought to the US when he was 6 months old, is still under surveillance because of an unrelated reckless driving charge and could still be deported. 

“My birth country is Mexico, but I’ve grown up my whole life in the US. This is all I know,” Montes said. “It’s a scary situation because I still don’t know what’s going to necessarily happen if they’re going to be kicking me out or not.”

His girlfriend set up a GoFundMe page, writing, “I am afraid to lose him due to the system being so unjust.”

“It is incredibly unfair that immigrants have this impossible choice, which is either go and protest for racial justice and for the human rights of Black and brown communities, or go out and fear removal and deportation,” Flores said.

A local law firm now plans to sue the Phoenix Police Department. 

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Máxima Guerrero said the ordeal has strengthened her resolve to fight systemic racism. Anna Clare Spelman/Alonso Parra

Heather Hamel, a lawyer at The People’s Law Firm, told Insider that that all 114 people were unlawfully arrested that third night of protests. 

“Bringing forward this lawsuit is important to send a message to city government, to send a message to the police department that there are individuals and groups who are not going to allow you to get away with this type of misconduct,” she said.  

She added that in Phoenix, “You have this hyper aggressive form of policing that is very unique to the US, that then collides with our incredibly unjust immigration system.”

If the suit is successful, Montes’ lawyer, Ybarra Maldonado, said it could help in his fight to remain in the US, the only place he’s ever known as home. 

“I’m scared to not see my mom, my dad, my siblings, my wife, my grandma, my dog and my cat, my friends,” Montes said. 

Guerrero said this experience has hardened her resolve to fight the systemic issues that brought people out to protest in the first place.

“It’s a criminal justice system that’s endangering Black lives, that’s murdering Black lives. And it’s also the criminal justice system that begins the pipeline into the deportation system,” Guerrero said. “I think being aware that these two communities are impacted along by the same institutions, the same police departments, and how we make that connection in order to really make sure that we highlight what needs to be changed systematically.”

“Now is not a time where folks can just be on the sidelines allowing what’s happening to our communities to continue.”

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