When the Tucson Weekly broke the story on U.S. Customs and Border Patrol's arrest of immigrant rights activist Raul Alcaráz Ochoa on Sunday, Feb. 17, it took just hours for the story to go national, putting Tucson once again at the epicenter of the immigration debate.
The detaining and deporting of undocumented immigrants has often focused on the separation of families, where those who are legally in the country—especially children—are suddenly separated from a parent or other loved ones.
Which is what Alcaráz Ochoa was thinking about that Sunday afternoon when he came across a car stopped by Tucson Police Department and saw Rene Meza Huerta about to be handed over to the Border Patrol as his five children and his girlfriend watched. Alcaráz Ochoa crawled beneath a Border Patrol vehicle in an effort to keep it from driving off. He was arrested and detained overnight.
The Weekly recently sat down with Alcaráz Ochoa to talk about what took place that day. Although it's been almost a month since his arrest, the coordinator of Southside Presbyterian Church's Southside Worker Center is eager to keep the story alive because a march from the church to Tucson Police Department headquarters is scheduled for Sunday, March 17. The goal of the march, he said, is to continue to call attention to immigration issues, especially in a self-proclaimed "immigrant friendly" city like Tucson.
"What happens when TPD calls Border Patrol is family separation, and it is a level of violence and brutality that is ripping our community apart," Alcaráz Ochoa said. "We need to continue to expose that local police and the (Pima County) Sheriff's Department are calling Border Patrol even though they've said they are not in agreement with it."
On. Feb. 17, Meza Huerta was driving with his pregnant girlfriend and his kids. Police said someone called to accuse him of child endangerment because the caller said a child was placed in the trunk of the family's silver Mercury Cougar. Alcaráz Ochoa recalls that the car was a hatchback, but it was reported that the young children in the car were not in legally required safety seats. Family members said they had just purchased the car and didn't have the seats with them.
Alcaráz Ochoa is active with a local immigrant rights organization called Corazón de Tucson. Friends began putting out word of his 2:30 p.m. arrest, asking people to call the Border Patrol to find out where he was and when he would be released. No one could confirm where he was being held. The Weekly called the Border Patrol for comment and was told that only family could get confirmation of anyone taken into custody.
Alcaráz Ochoa said his decision to lie under the Border Patrol car wasn't easy because it could mean felony charges for obstructing a federal agent. But he hasn't gone before a magistrate in federal court yet because his case is still being reviewed by the U.S. Attorney's Office.
"I think that the only thing that could potentially declare Arizona in a state of emergency or state of crisis, since it hasn't declared that officially, is probably people doing this on a widespread level all the time," Alcaráz Ochoa said. "It would be a very big disruption."
Prior to Alcaráz Ochoa's decision, many immigrant rights activists had been going to scenes when TPD stops someone and the Border Patrol is called, sometimes filming the arrest and getting information from the people being detained so their families can be notified.
Alcaráz Ochoa said his work at the Southside Worker Center puts him in contact with laborers and others who are worried about being detained. Defying the Border Patrol, he said, was a chance to do something rather than feel powerless.
But is he worried that the feds will press charges and try to deport him? It depends on "what kind of example" they will try to make of him, said Alcaraz Ochoa, who was born in Mexico and is now a legal permanent resident of the United States. His attorney, Victoria Trull, told him that it could be considered a deportable offense, but that deportation was unlikely.
"I think they let me go because of all the calls and the political pressure," he said.
While being detained, he said, he gave officials the name of his lawyer, but wasn't allowed to talk to her. He learned when he got out that his father in California called to get more information on where he was being held and was told to call the Mexican Consulate.
Looking back, Alcaráz Ochoa said he thinks it could have been worse. "They couldn't get me unless they crawled in and physically removed me," he said.
Border Patrol agents tried to talk him out, explaining the charges he could face, as well the possibility of being pepper-sprayed or Tasered. Alcaráz Ochoa said he responded each time by asking if they were going to let Meza Huerta go. When they said no, he stayed put. Seven more Border Patrol agents arrived and he could hear them discuss the pros and cons of being Tasered or pepper-sprayed.
"Finally someone said 'You can't Tase him because his body might go up and down, and it might damage the vehicle,'" Alcaráz Ochoa recalled. "That's when they approached me with the pepper spray."
As they sprayed underneath both sides of the car, Alcaráz Ochoa covered his face and closed his eyes, and two agents crawled under the car and dragged him out. "If there weren't cameras and people standing around, I think they would have beat my ass. They were containing themselves. It was aggressive, but not to the level I know it could have gotten," he said.
Alcaráz Ochoa was released from custody the next day and went to TPD headquarters, where a rally had been organized by local activists. The same day, the Border Patrol's Tucson Sector released this statement: "On Feb. 17, Tucson Sector Border Patrol agents responded to a request for assistance by the Tucson Police Department. At the scene, a Mexican male, who is a Lawfully Admitted Permanent Resident, impeded law enforcement by lying beneath a Border Patrol vehicle after agents took several subjects into custody for being illegally present in the United States. The man was subsequently arrested by Border Patrol agents after failing to respond to repeated warnings and refusing to move from beneath the vehicle. He has been released from Border Patrol custody."
On Tuesday, Meza Huerta, who had a Mexican voter registration card but no valid U.S. driver's license, went before a federal magistrate and was deported. TPD had said that it was the fact that Meza Huerta had previously been deported that prompted the call to the Border Patrol.
In response to the criticism facing TPD over the department's policy on calling the Border Patrol, Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor issued a memo to City Manager Richard Miranda explaining the incident. Villaseñor wrote that "our actions concerning Mr. Huerta Meza were completely in line with the provisions in effect since the Supreme Court decision regarding SB 1070. It is exactly situations like this which we predicted would occur once this law was allowed to stand. Even though our officers conducted themselves appropriately, they are being falsely accused of misconduct by immigrant activists ... I have been very adamant that we will enforce the law, but we will do so with integrity and professionalism, which is exactly how my officers conducted themselves during this event."