By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX, July 26 (Reuters) - A deputy from a controversial Arizona sheriff's office fought off accusations of racial profiling by telling a court on Thursday that he had gone as far as risking his life to rescue a Hispanic undocumented immigrant from kidnappers.
Carlos Rangel told a civil trial alleging Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office engage in racially profiling Latinos that, at the behest of federal immigration police, he played the role of the immigrant's relative to meet kidnappers. They were subsequently arrested and the immigrant was released.
In cross examination defense counsel Tom Liddy asked Rangel if he risked his life protecting a Hispanic who was not from the United States, Rangel said: "Yes." Liddy asked Rangel if he was an "anti-Hispanic bigot", to which he replied "No. I am not."
Arpaio, who styles himself "America's toughest sheriff," is on trial in U.S. District Court in Phoenix in a class-action lawsuit that will test whether police can target undocumented immigrants without racially profiling Hispanic citizens and legal residents.
The 80-year-old lawman testified this week he was against "anyone racial profiling" and denied his office arrested "people because of the color of their skin."
The sheriff, who is seeking re-election to a sixth term in November, has been a lightning rod for controversy over his aggressive enforcement of immigration laws in the state, which borders Mexico, as well as his investigation into the validity of President Barack Obama's U.S. birth certificate.
Arizona was in the news last month when the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a key element of the state's crackdown on undocumented immigrants requiring police to investigate those they stop and suspect of being in the country illegally.
Arpaio faces a separate, broader lawsuit filed by the U.S. Justice Department in May, alleging systematic profiling, sloppy and indifferent police work and a disregard for minority rights.
The civil lawsuit being heard in court was lodged in the name of Manuel Ortega Melendres, one of five Hispanics who say they were stopped by deputies because they were Latino, which Arpaio denies. It was later opened to all Latino drivers stopped since 2007.
Melendres, a Mexican tourist on a valid visa in a truck was pulled over ostensibly because the white driver was speeding. Rangel, who arrested Melendres, was asked by plaintiffs' counsel if he had questioned the driver. He told the court he had no grounds to investigate the driver.
When asked by Liddy if he had ever racially profiled anyone while working at the sheriff's office, Rangel, a 13-year veteran of the force, replied: "No".
The jury trial before Judge Murray Snow is expected to run until August 2. (Editing by Mary Milliken)
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