PHOENIX, Arizona — After the recent decision by federal authorities to limit the power of Maricopa County sheriff ‘s deputies to enforce U.S. immigration laws, Arizona lawmakers are renewing a push to grant local police the ability to detain and question suspected undocumented immigrants.
A campaign in favor of the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act” was launched after last week’s announcement that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio had his powers limited by federal immigration authorities.
Arpaio had one of the largest forces in the nation deputized to enforce immigration laws on the streets and in county jails under an agreement known as 287 (g). But John Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security, said Arpaio’s sweeps were not consistent with the program’s new priorities. Under a revised 287 (g) agreement Arpaio’s enforcement powers are limited to the county jails. He can no longer conduct traffic stops in search of undocumented immigrants under the program.
The move by the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has revived a decade-long debate in Arizona over whether local police have the inherent authority to enforce immigration laws. Some argue that a number of U.S. Department of Justice opinions –especially one issued in 2002– grant this power, while others say that several lawsuits over the years have made it clear such enforcement is unconstitutional.
After the recent announcement regarding Arpaio, the backlash against the federal government was almost immediate. [A poll published Tuesday said 60% of local residents disapproved of DHS’ decision.]
“The feds have been absent, and now they took it a step farther by refusing to let other people do their jobs,” said Republican Sen.Russell Pearce, promoter of the proposed measure.
Pearce, like Arpaio, believes local police have an inherent authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
But just in case there’s any doubt, the new bill would make it a crime to trespass on the territory of the state, allowing local police to arrest anyone illegally in the country.
If the initiative succeeds, Arizona could become the first state in the U.S. to criminalize the very presence of undocumented immigrants. Arizona has been called a “laboratory for anti-immigrant laws” for the rest of the U.S. In 2007, the state adopted one of the country’s toughest employer sanctions laws for companies that knowingly hire undocumented labor.
“Arizona is leading the way in the fight against illegal immigration,” said Andrew Thomas, the Maricopa County Attorney. He is expected to issue an opinion on whether local police can enforce federal immigration laws upon Sheriff Arpaio’s request.
If past efforts are any indication, the legislation faces an uncertain future. In the last two years, similar versions were either vetoed by then- governor Janet Napolitano, now the U.S. secretary of Homeland Security, or failed in the Republican-dominated legislature.
Pearce hopes his new initiative will be approved by Arizona voters in a November 2010 referendum.
In 2006, four ballot initiatives aimed at restricting undocumented immigrants –including one making English the official language of the state– succeeded with the approval of 70 percent of voters.
“We will defeat these bills in court,” said criminal attorney Antonio Bustamante. A fervent critic of Arpaio, Bustamante said the proposal is clearly unconstitutional, since it tries to regulate an area that’s reserved to the federal government
While the bill’s future is uncertain, not much has changed at the street level since the federal government limited Arpaio’s immigration powers.
The sheriff is using state laws at his disposal to continue to conduct raids in Latino neighborhoods. The proposed new law could become another important tool for him.
During his latest raid, two weeks ago in a Latino neighborhood west of Phoenix, deputies arrested 66 people, 30 of whom were suspected undocumented immigrants.
Arpaio also conducted a work-site raid at a carwash where nine workers where arrested. Under the previous 287 (g) agreement sheriff’s deputies detained suspected undocumented immigrants and took them to county jails. Under the new agreement deputies simply call U.S. Customs and Immigration Enforcement to take the detainees into custody.
Arpaio is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice for allegations of racial profiling and abuse during his immigration crackdown.
“He’s mocking his own government and separating parents from their children in the process,” said Francisco Rojo, an undocumented immigrant who drove a bike to work on the day of the latest raid to avoid being pulled over. “I truly hope Obama will do something to stop him.”
Arizona’s congressional delegation has been largely silent about the changes to Arpaio’s 287 (g) authorization.
On Oct. 16th, Senator John McCain sent a letter to Secretary Napolitano asking why the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office had been stripped of some of its powers. Unlike Arpaio’s agency, DHS has continued to allow six other agencies in the state to enforce immigration laws both within the jails and on the streets.