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A Dreamer’s Nightmare, Part 2: The ICE Man Cometh

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Noemi Romero becomes a victim of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s workplace raids.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s workplace raids had all the spectacle of a public hanging. News cameras, rapt bystanders, rubbernecking passers-by.

Sanctioned by two state identity theft laws, Arpaio’s sheriffs raided dozens of businesses over the years, arresting nearly 800 cashiers, cooks, cleaning ladies and more, then charging them with felony fraud and ID theft.

“[But] in most of these instances, false documents are either a relative’s or they’re of made-up people,” says Steve Kilar, communications director at the ACLU of Arizona.

In other words, these felons are like Noemi: She didn’t steal the identity of an American victim; she borrowed the social security number of her mom.

Noemi had seen Arpaio’s raids on TV. So when sheriffs walked into Lam’s Supermarket, her hands trembled on the keys of the cash register. Her heart knocked against her ribcage.

Two sheriffs approached. ‘When you’re done with this customer, go sit over there,’ they said. “Why?” she asked. ‘Just do as we say.’ It would become a familiar exchange.

They asked her for identification. She produced her school ID and Mexican passport. ‘Oh, you’re Mexican?’ the sheriff said, with a snort of laughter.

She started crying.

‘Take off all your jewelry and your shoelaces,’ a female sheriff said.

“Why?” Noemi asked.

‘Just take it off.’

After she obeyed, they handcuffed her. When her mom called, they made her take the battery out of her cell phone. When she asked to go to the bathroom, they ushered her inside and made her go with handcuffs on. When she and her coworkers were marched outside, the news cameras were waiting. So was Noemi’s mom. Noemi hid her face in shame.

They transferred her to another jail. They said: ‘This is going to be your home.’ Then they gave her a number. Not the elusive social security number. A jail bed number.

As Noemi describes it, the episode in jail was classic good cop/bad cop.

Good cop: ‘I don’t see why you’re here. I can’t find anything that proves you were doing something wrong.’

Bad cop: ‘She’s a liar! She was using another name.’

He booked her in.

The jail cell was the size of an average bedroom, but packed with 30 women, a toilet and a sink. A fug of bodily emissions filled the chilled air.

Later, a female guard took Noemi and another woman to a room. ‘Get undressed,’ she said, tossing smelly uniforms and stained underwear at them. ‘Put that on.’

“Why?”

‘Do it.’

Noemi burst into tears.

They transferred her to another jail. No one told her how long she’d be there or if she’d be deported. They said: ‘This is going to be your home.’ Then they gave her a number. Not the elusive social security number. A jail bed number. Two digits that would become her identity for the next two months: 54.

Noemi barely slept the first five nights. She lay awake wondering, ‘What’s going to happen to me?’ And since she didn’t have her glasses, she was terrified if she fell asleep her contacts would stick to her eyes.

She barely showered, feeling exposed in the open room. Tears and water streamed down her face.

She barely ate. Maricopa County jails dispense a smelly slop that recalls the poorhouse gruel in a Dickens novel.

Because of her parents’ precarious legal status, they couldn’t visit. A representative from the Mexican consulate finally brought Noemi’s glasses.

The glasses didn’t improve the view. Noemi shut her eyes to the barrage of Pepto-Bismol pink – the bedsheets, the underwear, the handcuffs – and imagined herself anywhere but there.

In a sense, Noemi Romero has always been imprisoned. If knowledge is freedom, as Miles Davis said, Noemi’s prison is unawareness.

She’s certainly not helpless. But her parents never warned her that when she graduated from high school, she was rounding a blind corner into a dead end. That she would essentially have no opportunities in the Land of Opportunity. Her classmates kept their own undocumented status secret. Her teachers and school counselors never discussed their undocumented students’ options.

For most people, their teens and early 20s is a time when the world seems to expand – the possibilities are so limitless it’s overwhelming. But talking to Noemi, one almost feels the world shrinking, as option after option evaporates.

Two months after she’d been incarcerated, one more possibility was about to disappear.

Read Part 3: Puente v. Arpaio