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Arizona’s Anti-Immigrant Politicians And Sheriffs



New America Media, News Analysis, Valeria Fernández , 

PHOENIX, Ariz.--Sheriff Joe Arpaio may have lots of supporters in Maricopa County -– and elsewhere in the United States — as the toughest on undocumented immigrants. Certainly the Arizona legislature is becoming notorious nationally for creating laws targeting that population.

But Arizona’s reputation as one of the most hostile states for immigrants masks a more complicated and varied political and law enforcement landscape. Not everyone agrees with Arpaio or State Senator Russell Pearce (R-Mesa), who authored a new Arizona law that requires state employees to report undocumented immigrants to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE).

The voices opposing the likes of Arpaio and Pearce have been muted in the debate, but they are significant. Among them is Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, who has come out in opposition to a bill that would make Arizona the first state to criminalize undocumented immigrants.

As mayor, Gordon has called on the U.S. Department of Justice to investigate civil rights violations by the sheriff’s office in 2008, has called the authors of legislation to criminalize undocumented immigrants “misguided” and has said the measures are “based on hate and bigotry.”

“They were wrong four years ago when Congress dealt with this sort of hateful legislation,” said Gordon, referring to Wisconsin Rep. James Sensenbrenner’s harsh immigration reform bill, “and they were wrong two years ago when [former Arizona] Gov. Napolitano vetoed a similar measure.” 

Prominent law-enforcement organizations, like the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police (AACOP), have raised their voices, too. AACOP, which represents police chiefs across the state, has said these bills are wrong because they would open the door to costly lawsuits against agencies starved for funding in the recession, and cause a chilling effect on the reporting of crimes in their community.

Thursday, the state legislature will have its final vote on another Pearce bill that would make it a crime of trespassing for an undocumented immigrant to be in the state illegally. A person arrested twice under the law would be charged with a felony. A broad coalition of human rights advocates will be urging legislators through phone calls and e-mails to vote against it over the coming days, and thousands of people will visit the office of Governor Brewer to deliver postcards in opposition to the bill. 

The legislation also includes provisions to restrict any government agency or city from limiting immigration enforcement. Citizens would be able to file a lawsuit against a police department if they think it is not complying with the new law. If the court determines an agency was in violation of the law, it will have to pay up to $5,000 dollars in fines for every day it didn’t implement it.

“You can have massive damages, in rural areas where departments don’t have lawyers,” said John Thomas, who represents AACOP at the state legislature. “It will be very costly.”

There’s also concern among law enforcement officers that many victims of crimes who are undocumented won’t report those crimes to the police for fear of being detained.

“The question is how willing they’ll be to come forth to put bad guys in jail,” said Michael T. Frazier, an AACOP board member and police chief of El Mirage.

Frazier said that under this bill he would not be able to guarantee victims and witnesses that they won’t be questioned about their immigration status—which is now his policy-- in order to avoid the risk of facing a costly lawsuit.

Pearce has said he has the support of nine sheriffs across the state, including those in Maricopa and Cochise counties. The Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), a police union, has come out in favor of the bill. But AACOP’s Thomas said that with those exceptions, “there’s no law enforcement agency that supports it in the state.”

There’s at least one sheriff who has been public about his opposition. Sheriff Tony Estrada, of Santa Cruz County, which is on the Arizona border with Sonora, Mexico, said the bill is "offensive and goes against civil and human rights."

"As a law-enforcement officer, I'm against having to do the job of immigration authorities," Estrada said. "Local enforcement corporations already have a job to be done, and that is to protect everyone.” Estrada said his department has no intention of enforcing immigration law, nor does it have the proper training to do it.

Adolfo Gamez, the mayor of Tolleson, echoed Estrada’s comments. “This is an additional responsibility on our department that already have other things to do,” said Gamez. “They are talking about Latinos, and to me this is racist,” he added. About 80 percent of Tolleson’s 5,000 residents are Latino.

Gamez believes that these laws are going to harm the state’s image state and its ability to attract new business, especially crucial with Arizona’s historic budget deficit.

For the Arizona Farm Bureau Federation, they have already been harmful. Since the state approved an employer sanctions law in 2007, the group has lost a great portion of its workforce. Joseph R. Sigg, director of government relations for the bureau, said this happened not necessarily because the workers were undocumented themselves, but because restrictive laws affected the livelihoods of their undocumented family members. “We are not hiring as much now," he said,"but the moment things pick up again, we won’t have the employee base to pick up the pieces.” 

Sigg said that as long as Arizona tries to preempt the federal government’s responsibility there will be many unintended consequences. One of those consequences worries religious groups like the Arizona Catholic Conference. 

“There’s so many people in our country that grew up here and don’t know any other country but ours that would be caught,” said Ron Johnson, executive director of the Arizona Catholic Conference, which lobbies for the church. The Conference's bishops issued a statement on Tuesday opposing the bills on both humanitarian and public safety grounds.

The statement, signed by bishops from the dioceses of Phoenix, Gallup and Tuscon, said in part: "...it is in all of our best interests that all people in our state – regardless of their citizenship status – should not be afraid to report crimes."

The bishops also criticized the bill's impact on children of immigrants because "these bills could lead to separation of family members that would not take place under current federal law." 

The political debate around illegal immigration in Arizona is thorny. Historically, Republicans have held a majority in the State Legislature, securing the safe passage of most anti-immigrant proposals. Senator Carolyn Allen was the single Republican to vote against the bill at the Arizona Senate were it passed on a party line vote, with all Democrats opposing it. Allen turned down several interview requests from New America Media to discuss her position. Last year, a similar bill failed because a number of Republican legislators in the state House of Representatives abstained from voting.

This election year things could be different. Some political observers at the Capitol argue that while there might be opposition behind the scenes, public exposure about it could be costly at the polls for most Republicans. This opposition has led to some of the most far-reaching provisions of the law being watered down.

Originally, the bill would have criminalized anyone who harbored or transported an undocumented immigrant, which alarmed religious groups and human rights advocates. Now, the bill is limited to people involved in the commission of a crime, such as human smuggling.

After the House of Representatives casts its final votes on the bill today and tomorrow, it reaches the desk of Governor Jan Brewer, who is expected to sign it into law. During her State of the State speech, the Republican governor mentioned specifically that she would be working with Pearce to “enhance the existing penalties for any criminal alien who returns to our state." 


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