Phoenix police ‘wrongly arrested’ protesters, who could now be deported

By: - June 1, 2020 7:45 pm

Máxima Guerrero is pictured outside the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in central Phoenix on June 1, 2020. Guerrero was arrested while she was a legal observer of a #BlackLivesMatter demonstration on May 30. She and three others who were arrested that night now face deportation. Photo courtesy Diego Lozano/Facebook

Four people could face deportation proceedings after Phoenix police arrested them during a Saturday night rally to protest the death of black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, according to advocacy groups. 

The arrests were unfounded, and could upend the lives of Máxima Guerrero, Roberto Cortes, Johan Montes Cuevas, and Jesus Manuel Orona Prieto, the groups said. 

All four were arrested by the Phoenix Police Department on Saturday night, held in a Maricopa County jail, and transferred to the custody of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 

Guerrero and Cortes were released from ICE custody on Monday morning, and Montes Cuevas in the evening. The three all have a temporary work permit and deferral from deportation under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, a nearly defunct program created in 2012 by the Obama Administration. 

Guerrero, who is a community organizer for migrant communities and entrepreneur, was at a protest Saturday night as a legal observer, according to Puente Human Rights Movement, the migrant rights organization where she works. 

“She was already leaving and at her car when she was arrested,” said Phoenix Councilman Carlos Garcia on Sunday. 

Cortes and Montes Cuevas were in a car leaving a Saturday night demonstration when police pulled them out of their car and arrested them, according to Daisy Zambrano, Montes Cuevas’s fianceé. 

“They went for the people who were so vulnerable. He was on his way out,” Zambrano said on Monday outside of an ICE office in Phoenix.

Orona Prieto wasn’t at the protest, said Ray Ybarra Maldonado, an attorney who is representing people arrested during this weekend’s protest. Instead, he was driving after having dinner at a restaurant Saturday and was racially profiled, Ybarra Maldonado said. 

“(Orona Prieto) wasn’t even at the protest, but what was wrong with him? His skin was brown, and because his skin was brown and he was in the area where a protest was happening, he was pulled over, pulled out of his car and given felony charges,” Ybarra Maldonado said Monday outside of an ICE office in Phoenix

He said he didn’t know which restaurant or the approximate location of Orona Prieto’s arrest. 

Ybarra Maldonado said a city judge has been releasing those arrested following Saturday night’s rally because of a lack of probable cause

“I never imagined that we would be in a situation where officers will pursue people and hunt them and charge them with a class 5 felony,” Ybarra Maldonado said. “If Phoenix police was trying to get people to leave, why would they be putting people in handcuffs and charging them with a class 5 felony?”

The punishment for a class 5 felony is between 18 and 30 months in prison.

Police said in a statement that around 10:20 p.m. on Saturday an unlawful assembly was declared and some in the gathering “were involved in criminal activity including arson, property damage and assault.”

“There were more than 100 arrests for crimes which involved Rioting, Unlawful Assembly and Aggravated Assault of a police officer,” said Sgt. Mercedes Fortune, a police spokeswoman, in a statement. “Phoenix officers also detained a handful of juveniles for crimes involving Curfew, Rioting and Unlawful Assembly. During last night’s civil unrest vehicles were also towed.”

‘Just the beginning’ of deportation proceedings

After a social media campaign and a gathering in front of ICE’s office on Central Avenue in Phoenix on Monday morning, Guerrero was released. She walked out with a monitor bracelet on her left ankle and a clear plastic bag with her belongings. 

According to ICE statements from Monday and Tuesday, Guerrero, Cortes, Montes Cuevas and Orona Prieto were transferred to ICE custody on Monday following “their May 31 arrest by Phoenix Police Department on criminal charges.”

“Those charges are pending,” ICE spokeswoman Yasmeen Pitts O’Keefe said on Tuesday.

Guerrero, Cortes, Montes Cueva — the three DACA beneficiaries — were released on an “order of release on recognizance” and placed under an ICE supervision program called Alternatives to Detention, she said.

They all have cases pending before immigration court, Pitts O’Keefe said. 

While DACA provides some protection from deportation for Guerrero, Cortes and Montes Cuevas, they are still at risk of ICE removing them from the country.  

“This is just the beginning,” Ybarra Maldonado said. “Once ICE has you in their grasp it is very difficult to get out of that and stay in the country. ICE will continue to pursue removal proceedings and try to get them deported.”

Orona Prieto is undocumented, said Viridiana Hernandez, executive director of Poder in Action, a group that advocates for police and criminal justice reform.

Pitts O’Keefe said Tuesday that Orona Prieto is in ICE custody and has a hearing pending before an immigration judge. She said Orona Prieto was recently deported in early 2015 after Border Patrol found him near the U.S-Mexico border.

“ICE records indicate on Feb. 27, 2015, he was previously encountered by U.S. Border Patrol near Antelope Wells, New Mexico,” Pitts O’Keefe said. “Border Patrol issued him an order for expedited removal. On Feb. 28, he was removed back to Mexico.”

Puente, Poder in Action, and Living United for Change Arizona are among the groups who continue to advocate for the release of Orona Prieto, and the demonstrators who they say were wrongly arrested by Phoenix police.

They also are calling on Democratic elected officials — Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego and Maricopa County Sheriff Paul Penzone — to end ties that allow for people to be transferred from local police to ICE custody.

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Laura Gómez
Laura Gómez

Laura Gómez Rodriguez previously covered state politics and immigration for the Arizona Mirror.