For a brief, agonizing time, car-wash workers Sandra and Carlos Figueroa were put through a wringer, powerless to steer their lives as all sorts of abrasive elements closed in on them.
But when the Figueroas emerged, the stain of being undocumented had been scrubbed away. The two were given legal permission to live freely in the United States.
"It was something difficult that brought a great benefit," Carlos said.
The Figueroas, both 35, were among the primary targets of the bust of the Lindstrom Family Auto Wash in east Phoenix one year ago today.
While Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio conducted a news conference in front of the car wash, deputies booked the Figueroas on suspicion of working under false documents and led them away in handcuffs.
Their then-9-year-old daughter, Katherine, watched her parents' arrests live on the morning news, dropping to her knees in her aunt's home and sobbing.
In jail, the Figueroas imagined nightmare scenarios: They would be dumped at the border that evening with no money. They would never see each other again. They would never see their daughter again.
But neither envisioned the eventual outcome: legal passes to stay in the U.S. for at least a few years.
Sandra and Carlos took plea deals that reduced identity-theft charges to a low-grade felony of criminal impersonation. Each served three months in jail and then was shipped to immigration authorities. They asked to see an immigration judge.
But the immigration system has a backlog that has grown to more than 4,000 cases since 2007. That was the year Arpaio entered a federal program, known as 287g, that allowed deputies and detention officers to enforce immigration law.
Sandra is scheduled to see a judge in July 2013. Carlos is scheduled for May 2012.
"Thanks to Sheriff Joe," Carlos said in Spanish, switching to English. "That's true. Sometimes he's helping us."
The Figueroas have permission to remain in the country while they await their court dates. Carlos also asked for and received permission to work. He got his job back at the Lindstrom car wash.
The irony is not lost on the couple.
"They didn't take us out like (Arpaio) wanted to," Sandra said in Spanish. "We're starting our lives over, but we're here. . . .
"In the end, (the raid) doesn't work. We're still here."
The couple reside in an immigration purgatory of sorts. Carlos and Sandra are not technically illegal immigrants. Even though they admit to crossing the border illegally, a court has yet to rule on their status. And for the time being, they are legally here.
Nor are they undocumented immigrants in the literal sense. They carry papers proving they have permission to be in the U.S.
Their situation is uncommon, but the couple are not alone. Of the 13 people charged in the car-wash bust, six remain in the United States while awaiting their day in immigration court.
Before they found this safe haven amid the byzantine labyrinth of immigration bureaucracy, Carlos and Sandra Figueroa lived what they saw as the typical life of an illegal-immigrant family.
The couple had met and married in Mexico City, but thought that was no place to raise a child. Not enough good-paying jobs and too much crime. In 1997, they jumped a border fence, Carlos said, and after a short walk through the desert, met with the coyote who delivered them to the Valley. Their daughter was born three years later.
In January 2003, Carlos found a job at the family-run car wash. He doesn't remember what documents, if any, he showed to get the job. Authorities would later accuse Carlos of filling out a false federal W-4 tax withholding form.
Carlos worked his way up to manager, in charge of the mostly Spanish-speaking employees, which included his wife. When the owner was traveling, he would leave the business in Carlos' hands, knowing the operation would run smoothly.
But for the past three years, Carlos and Sandra have wondered if Arizona is the place for them. They read about tough new laws and Arpaio's sweeps in immigrant-heavy neighborhoods. Carlos bought land outside Mexico City and hired workers to build a house. The two would save money and find some way to start a business in Mexico once their home was finished.
Carlos had no idea his family's fates would soon be in the hands of others.
In July 2008, Michael Heinlein, a former general manager of Lindstrom, e-mailed the Maricopa County Attorney's Office saying that most of the car-wash employees were hired with false documents. According to court documents, Heinlein, who left the car wash in October 2007, specifically mentioned Carlos and Sandra. He said he knew they were in the country illegally because Carlos mentioned his plan to someday return to Mexico.
Heinlein, in a phone interview, said he bore no grudge against the car wash or its employees. "I felt I saw some injustice and let the proper authorities know," he said.
Heinlein came in for a follow-up interview with sheriff's deputies a few months later. He expanded on his allegations, saying he was sure the owner, Michael Martin, knew some employees were hired illegally.
The owners of the car wash declined comment. They have yet to face any accusations of violating the state's laws on hiring practices.
The sheriff's office's investigation of the car wash spanned 11 months. Deputies pulled employee-payroll records from a state database, sent a query to the federal Social Security office and put the car wash under surveillance, recording license-plate numbers of employees. It found the names on the vehicles didn't match the names on the employee paperwork. Other names didn't match with Social Security numbers. Among the employees with discrepancies were Carlos and Sandra Figueroa.
On June 13, a Saturday, some 50 Maricopa County deputies and posse members descended on the car wash.
Sandra Figueroa was vacuuming a car. Her husband ran to her to tell her police were surrounding the place.
"We couldn't run. We couldn't do anything," he said.
The two ducked into the store of the car wash, Carlos holding his wife tightly.
Deputies questioned them. Sandra asked for a lawyer immediately.
"They asked us about our bosses, like they wanted us to slip up and say something," she said. "So I tried to say the least possible."
Their wrists zip-tied together, they were led into a waiting sheriff's van along with the other employees arrested that day. Sandra saw the television cameras. She figured the arrest would be on the evening news. She didn't know it was being broadcast live.
Their daughter, Katherine, was at her aunt's house, playing with her cousin, when she heard the man on the TV say there was a bust at a car wash. She ran to the living room in time to see her mother and father in custody. She started sobbing uncontrollably, thinking she would never see them again.
An immigrant-rights advocate visited Katherine at her aunt's house. Video camera in hand, he recorded a tearful plea from her. The video, in which she begged President Barack Obama to change immigration laws, was viewed thousands of times on YouTube.
Arpaio said the girl was being used to get sympathy.
Katherine stayed with her aunt. The two went to the Figueroa house and started packing, should the family have to move quickly to Mexico. Katherine boxed up all of her toys, including her prized "High School Musical" and Jonas Brothers collections. She saved four Barbie dolls to play with.
Jail was expectedly unpleasant. Carlos said the food was as bad as he had heard. There were frequent fights where guards would not intervene. Sandra said she was frequently strip-searched.
The two said they were told the charges would disappear if they could testify that Lindstrom managers knowingly violated the law.
"I could maybe have lied and told them I could give them information," Carlos said. "But if the information I gave them didn't help them, they'd still keep me in the cell."
Carlos saw one fellow employee go free. He didn't know why.
Prosecutors offered a plea deal, dropping the charges to the lowest-type felony and requiring a 90-day stay in jail. Carlos and Sandra hesitated, fearing the deal might jeopardize chances of remaining in the U.S. with their daughter. They eventually hired an immigration lawyer.
The Phoenix attorney, Kevin Gibbons, advised the couple to take the plea deal, a recommendation they followed. After they served their jail time, they were sent to immigration authorities. There, they asked to see a judge, saying they had a U.S. citizen daughter.
"Everybody has the chance to have their day in court," Gibbons said. "Even though they are immigrants, they are afforded constitutional rights."
Immigrants who have committed serious felonies, or who have "good moral character" concerns, as statutes put it, do not get their day in court. But Gibbons said that applies only to about 1 percent of detainees.
Gibbons said he expected delays in immigration court to continue as more immigrants are placed in the pipeline. The backlog would grow, he said, as immigrants realized they could delay deportation by asking to see a judge.
Sandra left the Phoenix immigration office in September with orders to return in December to receive a court date.
On the day of her release, Sandra's first stop was her sister's house. Katherine, peering through the letters her mom had written in jail, looked up in shock. The two embraced, stumbling together through the home and outside.
In her letters, Sandra promised her daughter they would be together again, even though sometimes she doubted it herself. "On some days, it seemed like it was just a dream," she said. "Then, when it became reality, I thought I was dreaming."
Carlos was released from the immigration facility in Eloy a few days later, with orders to return in March. He was still unsure why he was behind bars for so long.
"We made a mistake in crossing," Carlos said, "but we didn't cross to do anything destructive. . . . People who rob, people who sell drugs, doing all those bad things, where are they? They're free. And those of us that are working, we're taking up the spot that should belong to these serious criminals."
The couple unpacked some of their belongings, but their status remained uncertain. Court dates were months away, and there was no guarantee a judge wouldn't order them out of the country quickly, especially since both had a recent felony conviction.
Before Sandra left for her hearing in December, she prayed to the Virgin of Guadalupe and to Jesus Christ, leaving it in their hands. She also took some money in case she was deported to Mexico that afternoon.
She wasn't. The judge scheduled her hearing for July 2013. "It made me very happy," she said. "I didn't expect that much time."
Carlos went in March and found out his date: May 2012.
Their attorney said chances are slim a judge will grant them permission to stay permanently. Hardship dismissals are rare, and the government only allows so many. Still, the delayed hearings bought them some time.
Carlos' request to work was granted. He has a plastic authorization card in his wallet to prove it. The car-wash owner gladly took him back, at his old job and old salary. He also told him that customers were leaving donations for the family.
The employees Carlos supervises are no longer all Latino or Spanish-speaking. Carlos said some "Americanos" have started working there, although some have quit after a few days. "They don't want to work," he said. "They just want a check."
Sandra can apply for permission to work, as well. But she's seven months pregnant and will wait awhile to do so.
In the two years they have, they will prepare to be deported back to Mexico, the most likely outcome. But they will also hope Congress changes the immigration laws, allowing them to stay.
Carlos has made plans to finish the house in Mexico. If the couple stay in the U.S., he wants to make it a vacation home, allowing Katherine to visit Mexico, a country she's curious about.
Katherine, who has finished fifth grade, now wants to be a lawyer.
"I can help people who are in jail for no reason and the people who are innocent and didn't do a crime," she said.
Katherine has become an advocate over the past year, appearing on television and giving speeches at rallies. On Thursday, she testified before Congress about the raid that briefly left her an orphan.
Sandra's sister had recorded various news accounts of the arrests and interviews with Katherine, but Sandra has not had the stomach to view them yet. She doesn't want to see her part in what she saw as an Arpaio-orchestrated television show.
"He wants to use us to put fear in the community and to let everybody think he's working," she said. "It's the only reason he does this."
At a recent news conference, Arpaio said his busts would still be worthwhile, even if they don't result in every arrested immigrant leaving the country.
"All my enforcement actions are worth it," Arpaio said. "I'm the cop. I don't run the courts. . . . If they want to let 'em out, that's OK."
Former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas said the high-profile raids provide a much-needed deterrent effect. "You get a great bang for your buck," said Thomas, who resigned in April to run for state Attorney General, "by sending the message to the illegal-immigrant population that we mean business."
Heinlein, the man who sent in the initial tip that resulted in the raid, said he was driving along Indian School Road the other day and saw Carlos back at Lindstrom working. He didn't get angry or call authorities, he said.
"As a matter of fact," he said, "I saw a little bit of humor in it."