Arrest while working at fun park led to Arizona woman's deportation

Richard Ruelas and Yihyun Jeong
The Arizona Republic

PHOENIX — On a dark morning in December 2008, Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies knocked on the door of a home in west Mesa. They were there to find a woman suspected of committing a felony, namely working with fake documents at a miniature golf course and water park.

Guadalupe Gracia de Rayos was working at Golfland Sunsplash in Mesa in 2008 when she was arrested and later convicted of a felony. Eventually, it would lead to her deportation in 2017.

Fairly quickly on that Tuesday, just before 6 a.m., Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos told the deputies what they needed to know to arrest her. She verified her name and said she indeed worked at Golfland Sunsplash, an amusement park about 2 miles away.

That arrest in 2008 was part of a well-publicized attack on illegal immigration by then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and then-Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas. Both men had vowed to use their local offices to crack down on a national problem. Both men said they would do so, in part, by going after employers who hired people without the proper documents.

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That arrest would lead to the deportation of Garcia de Rayos to Mexico this week. It was the result, her immigration attorney said, of tougher enforcement policies put in place by President Trump. Her earlier felony conviction had not merited her removal in previous years. She was simply told to check in regularly with immigration authorities, her attorney said.

But this week, her family feared she would be subject to different criteria put in place by Trump’s executive action. She and her family held a news conference outside the Phoenix immigration office before she entered. Inside, she was ordered detained and deported. Back outside, protesters amassed. For a time, they blocked the van that would drive her to the border. But that was temporary. Her attorney said on Thursday she had been deported.

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The court papers for Garcia de Rayos’ case do not show how long she worked at Golfland, but they do show she made $9 an hour. Her attorney said she worked as a custodian.

She was arrested that year along with 11 other people who worked at amusement parks managed by the same company. They were Golfland Sunsplash in Mesa, WaterWorld Safari in Glendale, and Big Surf, an outdoor wave pool in Tempe.

In February 2008, deputies got an emailed tip from a former employee who said that WaterWorld had employed several people who didn’t have proper documents. In a follow-up phone call, he gave a deputy a list of six names he suspected of being in the country illegally, according to court documents. The documents did not detail how the employee suspected those six.

Deputies requested employment records from the state. They then looked for questionable Social Security numbers and queried federal databases.

In June 2008, deputies raided the parks, bringing along members of the media.

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Jeff Golner, who worked public relations with the parks, said Thursday he got a call from a reporter who was riding in a sheriff’s office car en route to one of the parks.

“You’re going to get a lot of calls soon,” Golner said the reporter told him.

Deputies arrested eight people that day. Court records show that some were longtime employees. One woman said she had worked at WaterWorld since 1995; a man said he started in 1992.

Tony Hacker, the general manager of Golfland Entertainment Centers, said Thursday that, in general, the people arrested at the parks were maintenance and kitchen workers.

Hacker said that “back then, it could be challenging to get someone good for those positions: Someone who knows their way around the kitchen and takes pride in their work and does a good job with maintenance.”

Arrest came months later

Garcia de Rayos was not arrested until months later. No reporters were on hand to document her arrest at her Mesa home.

Court documents show deputies found she used an “alien number” that belonged to a man 28 years older than she was. She also used a Social Security number not assigned to her.

The Social Security number listed in the court documents belonged to a 32-year-old Tucson man who said, during a phone interview Thursday, that he had never seen any repercussions from someone using his Social Security number. He also said authorities had never contacted him after the 2008 arrest.

Guadalupe Garcia de Rayos answers questions Feb. 9, 2017, during a press conference at the Kino Border Initiative, Nogales, Sonora.

Garcia de Rayos was charged with three felonies. Prosecutors said in court documents that they would seek a harsher sentence because she committed the crimes for financial gain. Because she was in the country without authorization, she was not eligible for bail.

In March 2009, just over three months after her arrest, Garcia de Rayos took a plea deal. She agreed to plead guilty to criminal impersonation. It was a Class 6 felony, the lowest class, but still a felony.

She was sentenced that same day to two years of probation and the time she had already served in jail. The hearing, according to court records, took 13 minutes.

Of the 12 people arrested, five had the charges against them dismissed without prejudice. Seven, including Garcia de Rayos, were convicted.

Probation and monitoring

Prosecutors filed charges against a woman accused of hiring the employees illegally. But that case was dropped under a settlement with the parent company of the amusement parks. Under that agreement, WaterWorld Safari agreed to close for 10 days. However, it had already stopped operating and was sold to another company.

Golfland Entertainment Centers did agree to certain measures, including using the E-Verify system to verify employees' Social Security numbers.

Hacker said he had no opinion on whether illegally working at a miniature golf course merited deportation.

“My opinion doesn’t matter,” he said. “We follow the law.”

In January 2010, the probation officer assigned to monitor Garcia de Rayos asked the court to end her probation early. “While on probation, the defendant has reported as directed and maintained a stable residence,” the petition read.

Garcia de Rayos had also, according to the petition, completed her mandated community service hours and paid all fees.

The request was granted in March 2010. Garcia de Rayos was no longer on probation.

The next month, she filed a petition to vacate her felony conviction.

The judge denied it in June, court records show, citing only one reason: the “recency of probation discharge.”

Garcia de Rayos did not try again to have her conviction vacated. It was still on her record when she entered the immigration office Wednesday.

Follow Richard Ruelas and Yihyun Jeong on Twitter: @ruelaswritings and @yihyun_jeong