PHOENIX — Máxima Guerrero had seen it before: young people gathering in anger and frustration, not waiting for the guidance of major organizations or longtime political leaders.
A decade ago, she was in downtown Phoenix when protests broke out after the Arizona legislature approved what would become known as the “show me your papers” law. The bill, critics said, effectively enshrined racial profiling — anyone law enforcement deemed suspicious could be stopped and asked for proof of citizenship.
So much has changed since then. The law was eventually overturned. Ms. Guerrero, now 30, received legal status through the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA. She worked for the Democratic challenger who ousted the Republican Sheriff Joe Arpaio, once the most influential anti-immigration leader in the state.
This much has not. Any undocumented immigrant arrested in Maricopa County, where Mr. Arpaio served, is flagged to federal immigration authorities.
And it was made clear one night at a Black Lives Matter protest on the last day of May how precarious Ms. Guerrero’s place in this country really is. Her story is at once a window into two protest movements in their early stages, and a reminder of the uneven pace of movement politics. Despite all the victories immigrant rights activists have claimed in recent years, they are far from achieving their version of justice they are fighting for.
For all their influence in progressive circles, many say that elected Democrats view their demands with skepticism or choose to ignore them. And in Arizona, where the number of Covid-19 cases continues to climb, immigrant activists are fighting many issues at once, as Latinos are disproportionately impacted by the virus.
When a racially diverse crowd of hundreds began marching against police brutality in downtown Phoenix after Memorial Day, Ms. Guerrero and a friend drove around downtown. Much of what they saw seemed orderly and calm, but she jotted down notes for record keeping, to share with other activists.
After midnight, the mood shifted and, she said, many officers seemed eager to shut down the demonstrations. They were starting to peter out anyway and by 2 a.m., Ms. Guerrero was ready to head home.
Just as she and her friend turned the car to drive back toward the freeway, a police squad car penned them in, making it impossible to leave. (The police have used the tactic, known as kettling, frequently during Black Lives Matter protests.) An officer demanded that Ms. Guerrero, sitting in the passenger seat, get out of the car with her hands up. Before she did so, she sent a worried voice message to a friend: Hey, I’m about to be arrested, she said simply. Her friends would understand the fear and implication — without citizenship, an arrest can lead to deportation.
Along with 113 other protesters that night, she was sent to the Fourth Avenue Jail, which is run by Paul Penzone, the Democratic Sheriff she worked to elect. More than three years into his tenure, an important policy remained unchanged: Immigration and Customs Enforcement would know about her arrest within hours.
Officers told her she would be taken the Eloy Detention Center, an hour south.
Through her work, she said, she was aware that some undocumented immigrants had been in the detention center for at least two months after an arrest, without a court hearing.
“For me, it was like, if I am in this place, there’s no certain timeline when I will see daylight,” she said.
For much of the night, Ms. Guerrero was terrified, thinking about the conditions of detention centers she had seen and heard about, particularly amid the pandemic.
“I’ve been looking at these numbers and the conditions on the inside for months, so it was also just scary,” she said.
She watched as others who had been arrested filed out of the jail, grimacing each time she heard the metal doors open and shut, open and shut, feeling like she was watching her own chance at freedom diminish each time.
By the time she was transferred to immigration authorities, an officer there told her she, too, would be let out that morning. She had no idea that hundreds of calls and texts had been made on her behalf. And still, her lawyer was skeptical.
“He’s like, are you serious? Are you sure they aren’t lying to you,” she recalled.
In the last decade, Ms. Guerrero has become a leading figure in Phoenix, in part through her work with Puente, a migrant rights organization based there. Her lawyer knew that morning what she did not: More than 100 people were waiting for her outside.
Still, the saga was far from over. An electronic monitor had been placed around her left ankle. Officially charged with a misdemeanor, her case was now at the start of deportation proceedings.
In the days and weeks afterward, Ms. Guerrero thought often about the work she had done since first becoming involved in the immigrant-rights protests of 2010. After the show-me-your-papers legislation was overturned, Ms. Guerrero went on to work on the campaign to recall Russell Peirce, the Republican state senator who had been the lead proponent of the legislation. Twice, she worked for the Democratic candidates trying to defeat Mr. Arpaio.
Like other DACA recipients, Ms. Guerrero arrived with her parents from Mexico as a young child. After growing up attending Phoenix public schools, she graduated from high school without many options for employment or financial aid if she wanted to continue her education. But after receiving the deferred action status, she enrolled at Arizona State University, working on political campaigns, in schools and for nonprofit organizations. She also created a small business selling fitness apparel.
In many ways, Ms. Guerrero’s experience shows how much of Arizona’s political shift in the last decade have been prodded and provoked by people who cannot themselves vote — young undocumented immigrants who have forcefully pushed for change and are still pushing. They want to see efforts to defund the police coupled with demands to abolish I.C.E.
“Sin papeles, sin miedo,” is a chant that rings out often during immigration protests — no papers, no fear. But there is reason to be fearful. Under a longstanding agreement between the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department and federal immigration authorities, anyone arrested who is also an undocumented immigrant is immediately flagged. So while Ms. Guerrero watched others leave the jail, she was instead greeted by immigration officers.
To Ms. Guerrero, it was another sign of the limits of electing moderate Democrats.
“It’s been four years since he was elected, and I.C.E. is still here,” she said.
“There’s this dilemma and for the longest time it’s been like, well, at least he’s not as bad,” she said. “Not being as bad as the other candidate shouldn’t be enough right now.”
But four years ago, it did seem like enough. She knocked on thousands of doors to help elect Mr. Penzone, a Democrat, as Maricopa County Sheriff. Mr. Arpaio’s defeat seemed like a thin ray of light to her as Mr. Trump ascended to the White House.
“We think of it as a victory,” she said. “But now I’m fighting a battle to not be defeated by the same person that I made room for to win.”
Sheriff Penzone said in an interview that he tries to run his office with as little partisanship as possible and defended the policy of allowing immigration agents to screen anyone booked in the county jail, saying that it reflected similar cooperation with other federal law enforcement agencies.
“Everyone is expecting me to choose a side, but as law enforcement we don’t have the freedom or subjectivity to decide which or how every law is enforced,” he said. Instead of focusing on the policy in the jail, he said, immigration activists should focus on state and federal laws.
As she looks to this year’s election, Ms. Guerrero, like other activists, is eager to press for more.
“We’ve built the electorate to actually get people in office,” she said. “What does it mean to hold them accountable? We need to maintain pressure to actually push them, not just say, we’re Democrats, we’re better.”
When the Supreme Court upheld DACA last month, Ms. Guerrero arrived at a celebratory news conference with her ankle bracelet visible. Several hours later, Mr. Penzone marked the decision by sending a fund-raising email for his re-election campaign.
“In order to build a stronger community and a better future, we must demand thoughtful and compassionate immigration reform,” he wrote.
“The fight that DACA children are still fighting is absurd,” he added in an interview.
Ms. Guerrero did have other elected officials in her corner. After the Arizona Legislature approved Senate Bill 1070 10 years ago, a massive outcry led to weeks of protests led by immigration activists. A few who have now gone on to elected office, including to the City Council and State Senate, wrote letters, as did dozens of other local leaders, urging immigration officers to release her.
Laura Pastor, a member of the Phoenix City Council, wrote that Ms. Guerrero “exemplifies the values and good moral character that we strive to embody as Americans.”
The letters helped her secure her release. And no criminal charges were ever pursued.
“If Máxima wasn’t Máxima she’s still sitting in a detention,” said Raymond Ybarra Maldonado, her lawyer, who has worked in immigration for decades. “There’s no question her notoriety helped her and helped the others.”
On June 23, Ms. Guerrero was called back to the local immigration office, where officers released her ankle bracelet. Somewhat relieved, but mostly still stunned, she returned to the home she purchased in 2016.