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Updated Feb 19, 2013, 2:34 pm Originally posted Feb 18, 2013, 6:53 pm
While Congress and the White House wrestle over the specifics of immigration reform, two men were arrested by Customs and Border Protection agents on Sunday afternoon, sparking a Monday protest in front of police headquarters.
A suspected illegal immigrant and a border rights activist were arrested by federal authorities after a traffic stop led Tucson police to call to determine the status of one of the men — an inquiry mandated by Arizona's SB 1070.
Monday afternoon, more than 200 people denounced the arrests in front of the Tucson Police Department headquarters, 270 S. Stone Ave., with signs and drums and chants of the slogan "Pueblo unido jamás será vencido," or "People united will never be defeated."
Sunday's incident began around 1:30 p.m. when police received a 911 call that a man had placed two children in the trunk of his car in the area of North Flowing Wells Road and West Miracle Mile.
Officers responded, searching for a vehicle that fit the description. They pulled over Rene Meza Huertha, 30, near South 9th Avenue and West 23rd Street. He was driving a hatchback containing his wife and children, two of whom were in the back of the vehicle, police said.
Since several of the children — there were five in the car — were not restrained as required by law, the officers asked for Huertha's driver license, which turned out to be suspended, said TPD spokesman Sgt. Chris Widmer. In Arizona, children under five years old must be in secured in a child restraint system in a vehicle, as must children under eight who are 4'9" tall or shorter.
Huretha also presented a Mexican identification card. Because driving with a suspended license is a criminal offense, the officers then called immigration authorities as required by SB 1070. The officers were told to hold Huertha because he had a "record of contact." Officers from Customs and Border Patrol arrived about an hour after the stop, and took Huertha into custody on suspicion of being in the country illegally.
Local immigration activist Raúl Alcaraz Ochoa, a coordinator with Southside Day Labor Center, was riding his bike nearby and saw three officers holding Meza Huertha. When border agents arrived, he attempted to intervene, and at one point laid beneath a Border Patrol vehicle. He was pepper sprayed and then arrested by agents, but was released early Monday afternoon. He faces charges of interfering with a federal officer.
Huertha remained in federal custody Monday.He was given a ticket for the unrestrained children, and a criminal citation for driving with a suspended license, said TPD spokeswoman Maria Hawke.
"When I saw that family, I thought of my family," Ochoa told those at the rally in front of TPD headquarters.
Allison Harrington, pastor of Southside Presbyterian Church, spoke dramatically about Ochoa's effort during the protest.
"We've been worried," she said. "But we have not been surprised, we know Raúl and we were not shocked when he put his body on the line."
Members of local immigration rights groups Corazón de Tucson, the National Day Laborer Organizing Network and the Southside Day Labor Center said they are demanding the release of Huertha.
During the protest, Ochoa spoke to media and called SB 1070 "racist."
"It separates families," he said. "The Tucson police aren't using loopholes that they have and that's wrong. It means they aren't doing their duty, serving and protecting the community."
A press release from Corazón de Tucson described the arrest: "Mr. Alcaráz Ochoa, a long time advocate against massive deportations in our community and country, placed himself underneath the vehicle in which Mr. Huertha was detained."
According to group's account, six Border Patrol agents and four Tucson police officers were on site, when BP agents "repeatedly" pepper-sprayed Alcaráz Ochoa before "dragging him out and taking him into custody." The group also demanded that Tucson police halt cooperation with Border Patrol.
Alcaráz Ochoa was arrested "after failing to respond to repeated warnings and refusing to move from beneath the vehicle," said CBP spokesman Agent Brent Cagen.
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A TPD spokesman noted that officers followed the law as required by SB 1070, and that he was proud of the officers.
"The officers had a duty and an obligation to follow the law and we think they did so with professionalism," Lt. Fabian Pacheco said. Despite the possibility that enforcing the law may anger those in the community, they had a requirement to do so, he said.
Ochoa has collided with police before. In May 2010, he was arrested during a protest at the Tucson office of U.S. Sen. John McCain in support of the DREAM Act, which would give legal residency to young people who join the military or go to college despite their undocumented status.
The arrest illustrates the complicated relationship that local police have with immigration enforcement. While the Tucson City Council has argued for a "immigration welcoming" policy, local law enforcement are required to inform federal authorities when they arrest someone who they believe is in the country illegally.
In a memo released to staff in December, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement Director John Morton established priorities for the agency, primarily centered around those with felony convictions, multiple misdemeanors, outstanding orders of removal, immigration fraud, or conviction of illegal entry.
The agency also announced the end of the 287g program, which gave local police agencies, including TPD, permission to hold people suspected of illegal immigration.
In December, the agency argued that the shift allows the agency to focus its resources on "serious offenders" and away from a policy that was criticized for its expense to local law enforcement agencies. However, in Arizona that situation is complicated by the remaining provisions of Arizona's SB 1070.
During fiscal year 2012, Immigrations and Customs Enforcement deported 409,849 people, a new record. The previous record was set in 2011, when 396,906 people were deported.
TucsonSentinel.com's original reporting and curation of border and immigration news is generously supported in part by a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation.