TUCSON — Her mother had lied to her most of her life, until a few months ago.
That’s when Carmen Figueroa, a veteran detective with the Arizona Department of Public Safety, became a foreigner in her own land — or what she thought was her own land.
The 42-year-old got her driver’s license in California, married in Texas and moved to Arizona, where she worked her way up the law enforcement ranks. Then it unraveled. On Monday, she resigned from her job to avoid being fired; she had suddenly found herself trapped between U.S. immigration policy and the freedom she had known when she thought she was a U.S. citizen.
She is not the first to go through this experience. Immigration experts say that Figueroa’s case is an indication of a growing phenomenon of people who find themselves butting against immigration laws because their parents had shielded them from the truth.
“I only have nice things to say about her,” Figueroa’s neighbor Pam Stempson said. "… It’s a shame.”
Figueroa now knows she was born in Mexico. The birth certificate that her parents gave her is in question. The story of her being born in Texas? Not true. She had been brought to the U.S. as a child but didn’t know that until recently. Figueroa had sworn under penalty of perjury that she was a U.S. citizen when she applied to the force, agency spokesman Bart Graves said.
On Friday, Figueroa’s husband said the family wasn’t ready to speak. He said they were waiting for their attorney to give approval.
Figueroa’s status came under scrutiny after her brother, who is in the U.S. military but was not identified by name, applied for a passport with the State Department and was told that he was not a citizen.
Graves said that in June, Figueroa heard from the State Department as well, and learned that she too was not a citizen, but apparently did not immediately disclose that to her supervisors.
Federal officials, who had launched an investigation into the matter, notified the Arizona Department of Public Safety in August of Figueroa’s immigration status. When supervisors confronted her, she acknowledged that her mother had recently confirmed it.
State officials put Figueroa on administrative leave in September while federal officials wrapped up their criminal investigation. In October, Figueroa learned that no federal criminal charges would be filed. The state’s administrative review followed, and that ended in a recommendation for her dismissal. Instead, she resigned.
It’s not uncommon for people to find out later in life that they are in the country illegally, said Louis DeSipio, an associate professor of political science at UC Irvine.
“I suspect we’re going to have an increased number of people in this position who are either going to find out they are unauthorized or find that they don’t have the evidence they need to prove that they are citizens,” DeSipio said.
Daniel M. Kowalski, an immigration attorney in Austin, Texas, agreed, noting that he and his colleagues were seeing an increase in such cases as more people come into contact with a system that is increasingly linked to various databases. In addition, more people are forced to apply for passports because a driver’s license is no longer sufficient for travel.
“I’ve had clients who find out when getting married and want to get a passport,” Kowalski said.
“And in many cases, there is little or nothing that can be done. Often there’s not much of a solution, other than immigration reform.”
Figueroa’s case has also raised questions about how candidates for public employment are vetted, especially in states such as Arizona, where employers are required under state law to use E-Verify, an online federal system intended to weed out people who are working in the country illegally.
Graves said the agency hired Figueroa in 2003, four years before E-Verify became mandatory in Arizona. Still, he said Figueroa seemed to have all of her documentation in order when she was hired. She provided a Social Security card and birth certificate from Texas.
Agency officials are having in-depth discussions on how to keep this sort of situation from recurring, Graves said.
It’s unclear what is next for Figueroa. She is too old to qualify for immigration relief under the Obama administration’s deferred action program, which gives a two-year reprieve from deportation to some people who were brought to this country when they were young. If her husband or grown children are U.S. citizens, she may be able to apply for citizenship through them. Then again, it may not be that simple.
Kowalski said it’s possible that she may have registered to vote or voted, which is a violation of the law for people who are in the country illegally.
“That could pose some hurdles for which there may not be waivers,” he said.
Figueroa’s neighbors in a subdivision of northern Tucson described her as a “great neighbor.”
“My heart goes out to her … the whole situation,” said Iris Bratton, who received Christmas cookies from Figueroa last year.
Bratton said she takes a hard line when it comes to those who are in the country illegally and especially toward those who are not productive to society. But this case has her wondering.
“Obviously she’s very productive,” Bratton said. “Shoot, she’s in law enforcement. What do they do in a case like that?”