Hispanic Janitors Arrested at Mesa Library

Hispanic Janitors Arrested at Mesa Library

The Mesa (Ariz.) Public Library found itself briefly touched by the nationwide conversation about immigration reform when the Maricopa County sheriff and a heavily armed group of some 60 deputies and volunteers, accompanied by police dogs, raided the main library at about 2 a.m. on the morning of October 16. The action resulted in the arrest of three allegedly undocumented janitorial workers of Hispanic descent, two inside the library and one in the library parking lot. It also escalated longstanding tensions between Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Mesa city officials over jurisdiction and style of law enforcement.

According to reports in the Mesa East Valley Tribune, Arpaio claimed that Mesa officials were ignoring a months-old tip that illegal aliens, dispatched by city-contracted vendor Management Cleaning Controls, were doing after-hours janitorial work for the library and city hall. “There seems to be a culture in Mesa where they don’t want me to come in and they don’t want to enforce illegal immigration laws,” Arpaio said in the October 16 Tribune.

“It’s one thing to enforce laws. It’s another to put people at physical risk,” Mesa Mayor Scott Smith replied later that evening, citing Arpaio’s failure to notify Mesa authorities about the raid in advance. Subsequent press reports have suggested that municipal and county officials were receiving tips about Management Cleaning Controls’ hiring practices months before the incident.

Emphasizing that the cleaning company’s contract was with the city and not MPL, Library Director Heather Wolf told American Libraries that she found out about the incident when her supervisor called her at home later that same morning before Wolf left for work. “If I hadn’t had that phone call and it hadn’t been a news item, I never would have known the sheriff’s office had been here,” she said, noting that security tapes showed the deputies spending no more than three minutes inside the building once a janitor let them in at the end of the crew’s shift.

Despite the main library being located very close to a Mesa neighborhood in which many Hispanics live, Wolf said that there was no public reaction addressed to staff. She, however, did hear from two long-time patrons, one of whom is a retired librarian and the other a former board member. “They just wanted us to know that they supported the library and they understood that, despite what the headlines say, the library does not employ illegal residents.” Wolf went on to say, “We do have Spanish-speaking staff and do try to reach out to that community.” Among its outreach efforts is a radio button on the library website that makes MPL’s online content available in Spanish.

Crediting the city’s public information office for quickly disassociating the library from any legal culpability, she explained that Arizona has what may be the toughest employer-sanctions law in the country: It stipulates that employers proven to have knowingly retained undocumented workers will lose their business license. “Certainly here in Arizona, illegal immigration is a very heated, very emotional issue and there are many people, I think, who have tied the economic troubles to illegal immigration. Whether that’s true or not, they are firmly convinced that there is a connection,” Wolf said, adding that the arrests “brought the issue much, much closer to home than I would ever have expected to come.”

As with other recent Maricopa County raids on private firms such as landscaping services, the janitors who were detained are believed to have committed identity theft, which would have enabled them to provide a Social Security number that would pass muster with the federal government’s voluntary E-Verify screening system. It’s not yet known whether employer sanctions would apply in such cases. She advises colleagues to be proactive and “make sure you have the documentation that shows that you did your due diligence” by working with human resources and community-relations departments.

The Mesa incident came about 10 weeks after the Alamance County, North Carolina, sheriff’s office came to Griffin Public Library to arrest paraprofessional Marxavi Angel Martinez, 23, while she was at work. Martinez, who came to the attention of law enforcement officials through her medical records, is charged with four felonies related to identity theft and, if found guilty, could be deported after serving a prison sentence. The American Library Association affiliate Reforma (the National Association to Promote Library and Information Services to Latinos and the Spanish Speaking) posted an open letter to its Facebook presence August 13 characterizing her arrest at the library as “deplorable” and announcing that it had established a PayPal account for donations to help her family.

Posted on October 24, 2008. Discuss.