PHOENIX — Twenty-two-year-old Noemi Romero, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, cracks her knuckles whenever she gets nervous, a habit she's had since childhood. Her hands sweat and she cracks away.
She cracked them when Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies raided an Asian supermarket in Maryvale, Ariz., last year while she was working there as a cashier.
She cracked them when deputies sent her to jail for illegally using her mother's Social Security number to work.
She cracked them when she was then turned over to immigration authorities for possible deportation to Mexico, a country she hasn't seen since she was a toddler.
And she is cracking them now, sitting in her living room, recalling the entire yearlong saga. It started with a desire to earn $465 to apply for President Barack Obama's deferred-action program. It turned into a felony conviction, a conviction that has ruined her chance at living and working legally in the U.S., perhaps permanently.
Crack. Crack. Crack.
Romero doesn't get much sympathy from Arpaio. He says he feels sorry for undocumented immigrants brought to this country illegally as children. But Romero should have known better, having grown up in the U.S.
"This young lady knows you would never borrow your mother's driver's license to drive. She has enough sense not to borrow the mother's Social Security number to get a job," Arpaio said. "She knew she was violating the law, and it's my job to enforce the law."
Still, Romero can't understand why the penalty is so harsh, so final.
Romero is originally from Villahermosa, the capital of Tabasco, in southern Mexico. Her parents brought her to the U.S. illegally when she was 3, along with her younger brother, Jesus, 20, who was 1 at the time.
Romero grew up speaking Spanish at home in Glendale, Ariz., but speaks English perfectly. Romero thought she was like every other American kid until she turned 16 and friends started to drive. She asked them how they got their permits.
"They told me I needed a 'social,' " Romero recalled. "I said, 'What's that?' "
Romero asked her parents.
They informed her that she didn't have a Social Security number because she wasn't born in the U.S. and that she didn't have legal status, either.
She also had no way to get legal status because she was brought to the U.S. illegally and she didn't have any eligible relatives who could petition for her.
In 2010, she graduated from Ronald C. Bauer Medical Arts School. The Phoenix charter school prepares students for careers in health care. Romero wanted to study nursing or maybe cosmetology after high school.
After graduation, Romero watched her friends move on with their lives. Some got jobs. Others went to college.
Not her. Without a Social Security number, she couldn't work legally. She also couldn't afford college because Arizona bars undocumented students from paying in-state tuition, and undocumented students are not eligible for financial aid.
Romero mostly stayed home helping her mom. Her mom earns money baby-sitting the children of working parents during the day and cleaning other people's houses at night.
Romero yearned for something better.
A chance at legal status
On June 15, 2012, the president stood in the Rose Garden at the White House to address a new policy aimed at immigrants brought to this country illegally as children. They are sometimes called "dreamers," Obama said.
"These are young people who study in our schools, they play in our neighborhoods, they're friends with our kids, they pledge allegiance to our flag," Obama said. "They are Americans in their heart, in their minds, in every single way but one: on paper."
The president's description fit Romero.
The program, called Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, or DACA, allows dreamers with clean records to ask for temporary protection from deportation. Those approved receive renewable, two-year work permits.
Romero's mother, Maria Gomez, 39, heard about the program a few weeks later watching Spanish news. The first day to apply was coming up on Aug. 15, 2012.
Romero met all of the requirements: Younger than 31. Brought to the U.S. before the age of 16. High-school graduate. No criminal record.
"I think I'm eligible," she remembers telling her mom.
She was, as were up to 1.7 million other young people across the country brought to the U.S. illegally as children.
But there was a catch. She needed $465 to pay for the application fee.
Romero didn't have a job. And at the time, her dad, Noe Romero, 40, the breadwinner of the family, didn't have steady work. Also an undocumented immigrant, he mounts tires for a living. Romero's parents didn't have enough money for food and rent, let alone helping her pay for the $465 application fee.
Similar situations have made it hard for many dreamers to apply for DACA.
Romero tried getting a job without a Social Security number.
The applications asked for her Social Security number. Romero left the spot blank. But the managers always asked, "Why didn't you fill this out?"
"I would just look at them and not say anything," she said.
The managers would tell Romero they'd get back to her.
They never did.
A 2008 Arizona law sanctions employers that "knowingly" or "intentionally" hire unauthorized workers. The law also requires employers to use a federal online system, E-Verify, to check whether any new employees are authorized to work.
Then in late October 2012, a friend called Romero to tell her about an opening at Lam's Supermarket. A cashier was about to quit. The friend said Romero should apply.
Romero's friend knew she didn't have legal work documents. "She told me it didn't matter," Romero recalled. "If I could just borrow documents from someone that would be fine."
Romero decided to borrow documents from her mother.
Saving for application
Romero's mother, Maria Gomez, is in the country illegally. But she has a valid Social Security number and a federal work permit because for the past four years she has been fighting a deportation case against her in U.S. immigration court.
The government sometimes issues work permits to undocumented immigrants until their deportation cases are legally resolved, which can take years. Gomez is fighting to have the case thrown out because she has lived in the U.S. for more than 10 years and has another daughter, Cynthia, 14, who was born in the U.S., making her a citizen.
On the supermarket job application, instead of her own information, Romero filled out the application using her mother's name and Social Security number.
Romero turned in her job application the next day. She was hired on the spot.
After two weeks of training, she started working as a cashier three days a week. Her usual hours were 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. She started at $7.65 an hour.
Romero opened a bank account right away. But it took more than two months to save the money she needed. She first had to help her parents pay for food and rent.
Romero got paid Wednesdays. On Jan. 16, 2013, Romero paycheck totaled about $200. She planned to deposit the entire amount in her bank account that Friday, her day off. She had finally saved enough money for the $465 deferred-action application fee. She planned to apply the next week.
She never got the chance.
Sheriff's deputies arrive
The next day, Thursday, Romero was behind of the cash registers. She was about to take her lunch break when she noticed two or three men enter the store.
The men were wearing regular clothes. But she had a sense they were not customers.
The men walked down the grocery aisles pretending to be shoppers. Then Romero saw one ask for the manager at the service counter. He was holding papers. She saw him pull out a badge.
Romero remembers at least two dozen deputies dressed in uniform entering the store. She knew right away what was happening. The deputies were raiding the supermarket.
In a panic, Romero grabbed her cellphone from her pocket and texted her mom.
"Acaban de llegar los sheriffs aqui."
The sheriffs just arrived.
Eleven months earlier, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office "criminal employment squad" opened an investigation into Lam's Supermarket after receiving a tip from a former employee, according to court records. The former employee told investigators that workers at the store, specializing in Asian food products, were using Social Security numbers belonging to other people to get jobs.
Investigators started digging into the claims.
They found various discrepancies after cross-referencing the names and Social Security numbers of workers employed at Lam's using law-enforcement data bases, according to court records.
"The discrepancies consisted of multiple names, different addresses, no records and the listed names not matching the SSN (Social Security number)," according to court records.
Sheriff's investigators then asked the Social Security Administration to run a check. They found 21 names that came up as suspicious, according to court records. One was Maria Gomez, the name Romero was using to work at Lam's.
The raid was the 70th raid since Sheriff Arpaio began raiding businesses and arresting workers in 2008. To date, 776 workers have been arrested in 79 raids.
"We don't go into these workplaces because we're going after illegal immigrants," Arpaio said. "We go into the workplaces for people with fake IDs, which is a big problem. ... This is serious, stealing Social Security numbers. Very important."
Facing serious charges
Sheriff's deputies found nine of the 21 they were looking for. During their search, deputies found an employee file at Lam's Supermarket for Maria Gomez, according to court records. The file contained photocopies of a Social Security card and other documents with the name Maria Gomez.
During an interview with sheriff's deputies, Romero admitted working under her mom's information, according to court records.
Romero gives a different account. She believes she was swept up in the raid by accident. A deputy at the jail told her she was not one of the 21 workers they were looking for, she said. The deputy wanted to let her go when another deputy found a pay stub in her purse with her mother's name on it. The name on the pay stub didn't match her school ID, which she said she had originally shown them.
She said the deputy got angry when he found the pay stub and yelled at her.
"He said, 'Why are you lying to us?' " Romero recalled. "He started shaking the pay stub in my face. 'Why are you working with this? You are working under someone else's name. Do you think I'm stupid? I know what you are doing.' "
In the end, deputies charged her with forgery, identity theft and aggravated identity theft, all serious felonies.
No supervisors or managers at Lam's have been charged as a result of the raid.
But in October, in an unrelated case, the co-owners of Lam's Seafood Market, which has the same address, Dat Tan "Tom" Lam of Goodyear, Ariz., and Precious Progress "Robert" Lam of Litchfield Park, Ariz., each pleaded guilty to conspiracy counts in federal court.
The two brothers were accused of attempting to evade payroll and other taxes by concealing sales records, filing false payroll-tax returns, paying employees in cash and failing to file personal and business tax returns for three years.
Romero spent the next 60 days behind bars at Estrella Jail waiting for her court date. Although she hadn't been charged with a violent crime, Romero was not eligible to be released on bond while her court date was pending. Arizona has a law that denies bond to immigrants in the country illegally who are charged with serious felonies.
In jail, Romero wore a black-and-white-striped prison uniform issued to all inmates. She shared a large dorm room with more than 100 other women.
"There were drug addicts and crazy people," Romero said.
On March 18, 2013, Romero pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of criminal impersonation, a Class 6 felony, the lowest level. Her defense lawyer, James Tinker, told her that was the best deal she could get. On her plea agreement, Noemi initialed a paragraph saying she understood that pleading guilty may have immigration consequences, among them being deported, and possibly being barred from ever getting legal status or citizenship.
Tinker also said it's his standard practice to review all possible immigration consequences, including deferred action, with his clients before they agree to plead guilty. Still, Romero said she didn't realize that pleading guilty to a felony would ruin her chances to apply for deferred action.
Maricopa County Superior Court Judge Peter C. Reinstein sentenced Romero to 60 days in jail and six months probation. She was given credit for the 60 days she had spent in jail.
Next, Romero was turned over to the custody of Immigration and Customs Enforcement and placed in deportation proceedings. She spent five more weeks in a detention center in Eloy, Ariz., while her case was pending.
An April 25, 2013, hearing in front of an immigration judge lasted a couple of minutes. Romero's case was dismissed. She didn't know what that meant until a detention officer explained it to her. She was allowed to return home to her parents.
Not giving up on dream
Recalling that moment a year later, Romero pauses. The silence in the room is broken by the sound of Romero cracking her knuckles. It is the sound of Romero's dreams being broken.
Crack. Crack. Crack.
If she hadn't been convicted, Romero believes she would have been approved for the deferred-action program by now. She would have her work permit. She would be back in school.
Instead, Romero still stays home helping her mom baby-sit.
Romero said she understands she broke the law. But she doesn't regret borrowing her mother's Social Security number. She was just trying to earn money for the application fee.
"I felt like that was the only way," she said.
But she would not tell other young undocumented immigrants to do the same thing.
"What happened to me might happen to you," she said.
Romero faces an uncertain future. But nearly being deported has taught her to look on the bright side.
She also has not given up hope that one day she will be able to work legally in the U.S. and go back to school.
"I'm just not sure how it will happen," she said.