A recent routine traffic stop that led to the involvement of Border Patrol and an undocumented father's apprehension raised a lot of red flags among immigration rights advocates and the community.
After 12-year-old José Escobar Perez pleaded to city council members last Tuesday evening to help his dad Roman, it made some people wonder if the Tucson Police Department was not following through with changes of how it enforces SB 1070, the state's so-called "show me your papers" law.
"I wasn't there, but my mom came home crying and I was worried about what had happened to her," he told the council. "I don't know why he got pulled over. He is the only one that helps us survive. I just want to say that I really want my dad back."
As he walked away from the podium, more than two dozen protesters in white T-shirts stood up and overwhelmed the room with claps. They demanded the council hold TPD accountable if it violated its scaled-back SB 1070 procedures. But when TPD broke the silence about Roman's case, it was apparent the officers in charge were following the rules.
When Roman, Miriam and their 5-year-old daughter were pulled over the afternoon of June 8, TPD discovered that Roman's license was revoked, according to TPD spokesman Sgt. Pete Dugan. At that point it was no longer a civil traffic stop, because the officers were dealing with a misdemeanor, which triggered an arrest. However, oftentimes when dealing with misdemeanor offenses, officers will paper arrest the person and then let him or her go.
Roman's car was impounded, but officers said he could go home with his family. But when a field release takes place, officers have to hand names over to TPD's records department, and that's when they realized Roman had a felony hit-and-run on his record. Policy says they have to contact Border Patrol, Dugan told the Tucson Weekly.
"I understand the family being upset, it is a family, we get that, but as far as what the officer was doing this day, he was following policy, there was no policy change or procedural change, he followed the steps and that was the outcome," Dugan said.
In February, TPD Chief Roberto Villaseñor announced changes to the department's General Orders, saying the police would not get involved with immigration enforcement unless the individuals they pull over have felonies on their record, are affiliated with a gang, are identified as terrorists, or pose a threat to national security. The changes better matched the Department of Homeland Security's criteria, and President Barack Obama's 2014 immigration actions, which also reinforced that the government should focus on deporting undocumented people with criminal records.
Roman's case was a reminder to advocates that the SB 1070 havoc is still very much alive. The issue are and will continue to be the involvement of local law enforcement in the business of federal immigration agencies.
Before the word felony was thrown into the mix, the Protection Network Coalition—which is a collaboration between advocacy groups—said in a statement last week that they demanded a written response from Villaseñor, "detailing the consequences the officer(s) will face for violating TPD policies and how TPD plans to ensure these violations will never happen again." Councilwoman Karin Uhlich was also alarmed, and said she was shocked to hear something within TPD might be "going sideways." She contacted Villaseñor also looking for answers.
Roman now sits at the Florence Correctional Center, and will remain there for the next five months or so, until the family finds out whether or not he'll qualify for bail, Miriam said. He doesn't have an attorney and was persuaded into a plea deal earlier in the month, she added. To Miriam, it is still unclear whether Roman will face removal when he is out. He's told her he wants to fight his case. Their priorities are and always will be to keep their family together.
"My little girl has been asking me where her dad is every day, saying 'Mommy I don't want the police to take him away,'" Miriam said. "I told her and my 8-year-old that their dad is fine and that he is coming back soon. They don't know the whole story because I am not ready to tell them what's happened. The only one who understands is José. He asked me how long he'd be gone and I told him five months."
Miriam and Roman migrated to the U.S. from Veracruz, Mexico 17 years ago. Roman works as a mechanic and Miriam has been a stay-at-home mom since José was born. Except now that the household's primary economic support is gone, she's been cooking and selling food.
Miriam says he was deported about five years ago, and re-entered the country, she said. "He is a good person, a good father, good to me, and we want him back at home," she said.
A public information request with TPD of Roman's case was pending at press time.