Lawmakers, Activists Demand New Investigation of Toughest Sheriff in America

PHOENIX--Lawmakers, union leaders, human rights groups, Democratic Party leaders, and celebrities are taking on the "Toughest Sheriff in America" for policies that they say encourage racial profiling, civil rights violations, and other abuses.

Last week, four Democratic members of the Congressional House Judiciary Committee, Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA) sent a letter to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting an investigation into whether MCSO has engaged in racial profiling or violated other civil rights in the course of its immigration enforcement efforts under 287(g). This week, the Arizona Latino Legislative Caucus made similar requests to DHS and the U.S. Attorney General's Office.

Sheriff Arpaio has had consistently high approval ratings among his constituents throughout his 15 years as Maricopa County Sheriff, but he has also been a well-known and controversial figure across the country throughout his terms. Arpaio is most famous for his Tent City Jail where, in efforts to save costs, a couple thousand county inmates are housed year-round in surplus military tents, fed baloney sandwiches twice per day, shackled in pink handcuffs, and dressed in old-fashioned black-and-white striped uniforms and pink boxer shorts. With a cost of only 15 cents per meal, the infamous Tent City Jail meals are touted on the Maricopa County Sheriff Office (MCSO) website as "the cheapest meals in the U.S."

Arpaio has also been denounced for using volunteer "chain gangs" and marching large groups of inmates through public streets to transfer them from one facility to another. Arpaio has even appeared in his own Fox television reality show, "Smile... You're Under Arrest!"

The most tendentious imputations to Arpaio, however, stem from an agreement between the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) under 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act. The 287(g) provision allows federally trained and supervised state and local law enforcement officials to investigate, apprehend, transport, and detain people who are living and working in the country without authorization.

According to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), there are currently 67 state and local law enforcement agencies have 287(g) agreements with DHS, and with 160 officers, Arpaio has the largest contingent of 287(g) officers in the country. His critics charge that abuses by Arpaio's 287(g) officers have left entire local communities, including U.S. citizens, feeling "under siege." Those critics believe that the abuses are systematic and stem directly from policies and procedures enacted by Arpaio under 287(g) that encourage racial profiling and civil rights violations of the immigrants and communities targeted for enforcement.

In April 2008, then U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey was also asked to investigate similar charges of racial discrimination after Jessica Rodriguez, a high level staffer of Mayor Phil Gordon, believed that her husband was illegally targeted during a traffic stop by MCSO when six cars made an illegal u-turn but only her Hispanic husband was stopped, ticketed, and asked for proof of citizenship). Rodriguez has an ongoing lawsuit against MCSO related to the incident.

Gordon has also criticized Arpaio's neighborhood "sweeps" as heavy-handed, but Arpaio insists that overwhelming force is necessary when officers enter gang-infested neighborhoods. MCSO has used SWAT teams and helicopters when conducting what Arpaio calls "saturation raids," which target neighborhoods or businesses and are aimed at both hard criminals and illegal laborers.

The 287(g) program has rules in place to prevent racial profiling and to ensure that civil rights are not violated, but Arpaio's detractors say that his policies do not comply with those rules. For example, when conducting certain types of operations in areas heavily populated by minorities, the federal government requires the officers to have compelling evidence that crime is taking place, but Arpaio's critics believe that race is MCSO's primary criteria for targeting a community or business.

Lofgren says,

Latino members of the community are considered "undocumented" [by MCSO] until proven otherwise.

A 152 page report (PDF) released Wednesday by the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill (UNC) School of Law goes even further, saying:

A federal law granting local police and sheriffs the power to act as immigration officials when faced with dangerous criminals or terrorists has instead created a climate of racial profiling and community insecurity.

The primary strategic goal of 287(g) is to identify criminal aliens. The saturation raids include large numbers of traffic stops within neighborhoods targeted, according to MCSO, on empirical evidence of crime. The traffic stops, however, often result in the detention of people whose only crime is an immigration violation and a minor traffic violation.

In January, Arpaio was caught on video arresting Ciria Lopez in front of her two children for an unpaid traffic ticket. Mrs. Lopes was deported weeks later, leaving her children without a mother.
Critics charge that sheriff deputies pull over drivers based on hunches that illegal immigrants are in the vehicle or under the guise of minor traffic violations (e.g., crack windshield, broken taillight), and then officers check their residency status, but MCSO says that they check the legal status of the driver and passenger only when they have probable cause. An MCSO spokesperson says, "when we pull over a van with 30 people in it in a smuggling corridor, we have probable cause."

According to an ICE fact sheet, however, traffic stops should not be impacted by 287(g) enforcement efforts:

ICE representatives have repeatedly emphasized that [287(g)] is designed to identify individuals for potential removal, who pose a threat to public safety, as a result of an arrest and/or conviction for state crimes. It does not impact traffic offenses such as driving without a license unless the offense leads to an arrest.

Arpaio says, though, that in addition to the federal laws enforced under 287(g), he has an obligation to enforce Arizona state laws, to reduce violent crime, and to save local taxpayers money. Last month, he conducted sweeps in Buckeye that included traffic stops, an area that he says is "a hotbed for violent human smuggling operations," pointing to nearly 100 homicides in the area over the last 6 years.

Twice Arpaio has marched shackled prisoners from one location to another. Most recently, in February a couple hundred immigrant detainees were marched down a public street from one jail facility to another so that they could be segregated from the rest of the inmate population. MCSO points out that the so-called "public street" is actually a street that runs between MCSO buildings and that the detainees only walked about 220 yards. A spokesperson says, "There wasn't any traffic. Any cars driving down that street are probably occupied by MCSO employees."

Immigrant rights activists, including lawmakers and other public officials denounced the march as "ritual humiliation" and a trophy-like display of Arpaio's "conquests" and denounced the separate facilities as racial segregation. Arpaio's supporters, however, say that he was merely separating immigration lawbreakers from hardened criminals. Arpaio says the move was a cost cutting measure and that the immigrant detainees will also benefit from more convenient access to the Mexican consulate.

For 2 years, Arpaio has advertised a hotline on MCSO trucks and vans through which local residents are encouraged to report people suspected of human cross-border trafficking and people who they suspect are living and working in the U.S. illegally. Supporters claim that the hotline discourages businesses from hiring people who are not authorized to work in the U.S. and helps authorities identify drop houses and criminal gang members. Critics say it encourages people to report sightings of Hispanics and to inform on minority neighbors who may or may not be residing in the country illegally.

One local paper produced an award-winning series accusing Arpaio of neglecting other obligations in order to pursue an anti-immigrant agenda. They say that in an effort to gain the publicity attached to controversial immigration enforcement activities, Arpaio has shifted resources to his immigration enforcement agenda leaving too few resources available for the core responsibilities of MCSO. They cite statistics that show MCSO performance on a range of law enforcement criteria dropped after Arpaio signed the 287(g) agreement.

MCSO says those statistics are incorrect, and they refute the conclusion reached by the East Valley Tribune reporters by pointing to a recent FBI report that shows violent crime and homicides have declined in Maricopa County. In fact, an MCSO spokesperson says that the FBI has commended them for immigration enforcement because it likely contributed to the decline of violent crime.

In a public memo on January 30, Napolitano asked DHS to re-examine the entire 287(g) program. According to DHS Spokesperson Sean Smith, the request was sparked by questions of whether uniform standards are applied under 287(g) across law enforcement agencies. Specifically, the report asks the following:

How many officers have been trained to date? How many agreements have been signed with state and locals to date and how many are ready to be signed? What is the current turnaround time to sign an agreement and what can be done to expedite more agreements? How does this model compare in cost, effectiveness, and administration, to other forms of cooperation with these officials or entities? What are the strengths and challenges with jail model agreements versus task force model agreements?

The report is due on Napolitano's desk today, but has not yet been released to the public.

Napolitano's question, "what can be done to expedite more agreements?" sparked outrage among critics of MCSO and 287(g), spurring plans for protests across the country on Saturday, February 28. More than 70 organizations have signed on so far, along with lawmakers and leaders of the Democratic Party and celebrities. The lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, Zach de la Rocha, endorsed the march and is asking his fans to take up the cause, saying:

To witness what is happening in Arizona and remain neutral is to be implicated in human rights violations that are occurring right here on US soil against migrants. History will not be kind to Joe Arpaio. He will be remembered with other infamous sheriffs like Bull Connor who subjugated and terrorized communities for shortsighted political gain.

The coalition is planning a demonstration and march in Phoenix and teach-ins in cities across the country.

National Coordinator Pablo Alvarado of the National Day Laborers Organizing Committee said,

People of conscience all over the country are outraged at what's happening in Arizona, and they will be working nationwide to pressure the Obama administration to act quickly.

Although the organizers are demanding that all 287(g) agreements be rescinded, the protests are being largely promoted as just another anti-Arpaio demonstration, which some say is a distraction from the ultimate goal of ending all 67 of the 287(g) agreements.

The UNC report also says there is currently no transparency of 287(g) activities, and the program has no functional system for complaints or appeals. Rather than recommending the repeal of 287(g) agreements, the report proposes making improvements to the program, including increased transparency, community involvement in the implementation of 287(g) agreements, a better complaint/appeal process, clarification of civil rights standards, and improving officer training.

While 287(g) opponents are concerned about the expansion of the program, Arpaio has voiced concern, based on Napolitano's request for an examination of the effectiveness of the program, that DHS could rescind the program or some of its provisions. Some immigration experts expect Napolitano to rescind the provision that allows local law enforcement agencies to make arrests for immigration violations, but they expect Napolitano to keep the provision intact that allows local law enforcement agencies to identify and hold illegal immigrants who have already been arrested for felony crimes.

Napolitano has indicated that, when it comes to immigration enforcement, her focus will be on the employers who exploit the illegal trafficking of laborers and on hard criminals living in the U.S. illegally. She says DHS, under her direction, will focus on those who create the market--the demand--for illegal labor to ensure that "those who are actually benefiting financially in large scale from [trafficking] pay a criminal sanction."