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U.S. citizen falsely imprisoned under Arizona's 'show me your papers' law

Phoenix New Times/Stephen Lemons
Briseira Torres (left), with friend Amy Diaz, one day after her release from Estrella Jail.
Briseira Torres (left), with friend Amy Diaz, one day after her release from Estrella Jail.Phoenix New Times/Stephen Lemons

You may be familiar with Arizona Senate Bill 1070, “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” (aka “Show Me Your Papers”), which requires police to check the status of anyone they suspect is not in the United States legally.

This raised several skeptical eyebrows and many concerned questions; most importantly, how is one to determine a non-resident from legal resident and citizen? The obvious answer: presumptions and race. 

The bill caused quite a stir when it was passed into law. Several cases were brought against the state regarding constitutionality as well as civil cases regarding the individuals targeted by the law. Since its inception, many legal residents of the state of Arizona have suffered through countless traffic stops, subjected to accusations and often arrested and booked by officers when no crime has been committed.

A similar law to Bill 1070 is Proposition 100, an amendment to the Arizona state constitution that prevents undocumented immigrants from posting bail if they commit a violent or dangerous crime. Or at least, that’s how it was explained to the public. The law protects the people of Arizona from the supposed swarms of “Large, well-organized gangs of illegal aliens [who] have flooded many neighborhoods with violence.”

Allow me to introduce Prop 100's most recent victim: Briseira Torres.

Briseira is an American citizen who attempted to obtain a passport for her teenage daughter in Maracopa County. While applying, she was questioned and detained by police, government officials and even a special agent with the State Department who subsequently accused her of three counts of forgery and, claiming she was an undocumented illegal alien, held her in Estrella Jail for 4 ½ months without bail.

Briseira, unable to make payments, lost her home and her car and had to call on friends to take care of her 14-year-old daughter.

She was not without help, however. Delia Salvatierra, well known in Arizona for aiding wrongfully incarcerated and other victims of the harsh state laws, represented Torres alongside colleagues Antonio Bustamante and Johnn Sinodis. Their case was rock solid: a pile of documents proving Torres is a US citizen (including her long form birth certificate) and a sworn statement from Arizona’s Office of Vital Records confirming the legitimacy of those documents.

With this evidence in hand, why was it Ms. Torres was held for almost five months against her will with no hope for bail?

Detective Chris Oberly of the Arizona Dept. of Transportation’s Office of the Inspector General told the grand jury in sworn testimony that Brieseira Torres’ birth certificate had been “falsely created” by Torres’ mother, claiming the Department of Vital Records canceled it in 1999.  This was a lie.

The charges were eventually dropped “without prejudice” (which means those charges can be brought back upon Torres at a later date) and she was released from jail into the open arms of her daughter.

The departments involved in Torres’ initial arrest and following 4.5 month detention cite a series of mix-ups in their respective department as well as confusion with Torres living in Mexico for her teenage years.  However the fact remains that her citizenship could have been easily confirmed by either reading the submitted paperwork from her attorneys or simply contacting the Vital Records department themselves.

Illegal immigration in the state of Arizona is a complex issue. However, the miscarriage of justice in the name of “crime prevention” is a thinly veiled xenophobic crusade to purge the latest wave of immigrants from our country.