TUCSON — It's routine for immigration officials in Arizona to detain people suspected of being in the country illegally.
Monday, however, the detention of two men — an immigrant rights activist and a father of six in Tucson — sparked protests, frustrated local authorities and illustrated the difficulties of complying with SB 1070, the state's controversial immigration enforcement law.
"This is unjust," Alma Hernandez yelled in Spanish to a crowd of about 300 that gathered in front of the Tucson Police Department to protest the detentions. Hernandez, a spokeswoman with the civil rights organization Corazón de Tucson, riled up the crowd by introducing immigrant rights activist Raul Alcaraz Ochoa, who had just been released from immigration detention.
"We need to fight for all those who are detained," Alcaraz Ochoa said.
Immigration officials arrested him Sunday after he positioned himself underneath a U.S. Customs and Border Patrol vehicle in an attempt to stop officials from taking away another man, Rene Meza.
The incident began Sunday afternoon after someone called Tucson police expressing concern for the safety of children in a silver Mercury Cougar, Lt. Fabian Pacheco said.
Officers discovered five children in the vehicle, along with Meza and his girlfriend, Perla Lopez. Four of the children were younger than 5 and were not in proper safety restraints as required by law, Pacheco said.
Meza had a Mexican voter registration card but no valid U.S. driver's license, Pacheco said. Police arrested Meza and called immigration officials after federal records revealed he had prior contact with them.
Meza was charged with being in the country illegally after a previous deportation, Customs and Border Protection spokesman Victor Brabble said. Meza is scheduled to go before an immigration judge Tuesday.
Under SB 1070, Arizona law enforcement officials are compelled in most circumstances to check the status of someone they stop for lawful reasons if they suspect the person is in the country illegally.
Pacheco said the officers were simply enforcing the law.
"The department is stuck in the middle," Pacheco said. "Our discretion is gone."
Soon after Tucson police flagged immigration officials, Border Patrol officers drove up.
Alcaraz Ochoa, who was on his way to a community meeting, saw what was happening and approached the officials.
"They took the father, and the children were crying and asking for their father," Alcaraz Ochoa said.
Alcaraz Ochoa, a legal permanent resident and prominent immigrant rights activist best known for participating in a sit-in at Republican Sen. John McCain's office in 2010, said he began to question the officials. Dissatisfied with their answers, he crawled underneath the Border Patrol vehicle.
He said Border Patrol officials pepper-sprayed him, removed him from beneath the vehicle and handcuffed him.
Brabble said Border Patrol agents arrested Alcaraz Ochoa after he failed to respond to repeated warnings and refused to move from beneath the vehicle.
Meza may also face state charges of driving with a suspended license and of not having the children in proper restraints. Lopez, a U.S. citizen, was not detained.
Lopez's mother, Lydia Lopez, said the children weren't restrained properly because the family had just bought the vehicle from a private owner moments earlier and didn't have the safety seats with them. She said the punishment is too extreme.
"It's not justified," Lopez said in Spanish.