PHOENIX, AZ -- Despite recently losing authority over agents from Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio announced Tuesday that he will "continue to crack down on illegal immigration" by enforcing state laws. He says he will arrest people who are in the country without authorization and if ICE will not take them, he will "load them on a bus and drive them to the border."
Although Arpaio's popularity has not waned in Arizona, he has become an increasingly controversial figure in the national spotlight in recent years. He houses inmates in outdoor tent-based jails, where he dresses them in striped uniforms and pink underwear, and feeds them bologna twice a day. His most controversial practices, though, stem from an agreement between the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and the Department of Homeland Security that is authorized by 287(g), a section of the Immigration and Nationality Act. Under the agreement, county office deputies can screen inmates already booked into jails and detain and investigate immigrants outside of jail for suspicion of living or working in the country illegally.
The Department of Justice opened an investigation in March into alleged civil rights violations by the Maricopa office, which continually faces off against local groups on the issue of immigration enforcement. In August, 521 immigration rights groups sent an open letter to President Obama demanding immigration reform and specifically criticizing what they see as the administration's unwillingness to deal with section 287(g).
On July 10, the Department of Homeland Security announced that agreements made under 287(g) with all law enforcement agencies would be reviewed and standardized over a period of 90 days. The department currently has agreements with more than 60 local law enforcement agencies, covering more than 1,000 officers. MCSO has the largest contingent of protected officers, at 160, and was the first agency to sign into the agreement.
On Sept. 21, Arpaio signed an agreement that would have allowed his office to continue enforcement both inside and outside of the jails, but ICE Deputy Assistant Secretary of Operations Alona Pena called later that evening, then traveled to Arizona the following day to personally deliver a new agreement to Arpaio. This one would limit Arpaio's office from screening immigrants outside of jail. Arpaio signed Pena's new agreement and said, "They figured I'd never sign, but I surprised them and signed it," later adding, "I want to keep the jail program .... Being an ex-fed, I'll take anybody's help. even if there's just one case, it's worth having the help."
Still, Arpaio said he suspected the new agreement was indicative of the federal government's hope to oust him. "There is always an excuse to cover up their motive, which is to get rid of me .... They just don't want this sheriff to arrest illegal aliens." He added that he'd never before seen the Federal government "go after" a law enforcement agency for political reasons.
The new agreement must be signed by Oct. 15, and the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors will vote on it this Wednesday. Arpaio expressed concern at the last-minute nature of the decision, saying if the board does not approve the new agreement, his office will no longer be able to detain anyone in the county jails.
"It's interesting that all of this came to be at the midnight hour," he said, calling the developments a "conspiracy." Though he has clashed with the board on other issues, the majority of the board traditionally supports his enforcement efforts. Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox is usually Arpaio's lone opponent.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has snagged more than 33,000 illegal immigrants in the country through in-jail screening since signing the 287(g) agreement two years ago. Almost 300 people have been arrested outside the jails under the agreement, but it is the officers' behavior on the streets that has proved most controversial due to accusations of racial profiling -- charges Arpaio adamantly denies. He maintains that officers are well-trained and only stop people when they have probable cause to suspect they have committed a crime.
Arpaio said an audit was conducted of his 287(g) program after a series of crime suppression sweeps drew fire for racial profiling, and that his office received a copy of the audit "through a back door channel" after repeatedly requesting an official copy unsuccessfully for months. He said the agent assigned to the case by the Federal Bureau of Investigation reported that the only complaint to the F.B.I came from Phoenix Mayor Phil Gorder, a person Arpaio deems a "political opponent."
"The audit results prove the only reason for stripping Arpaio's office of its ICE agent status is for political purposes, nothing more," said Robert Driscoll, Arpaio's Washington, D.C.-based lawyer. He said the Homeland Security Department "knew how embarrassed it would be if this audit became public."
Arpaio conceded that street-level enforcement may not catch many hard criminals, but "it has to do with public perception. People are leaving because they are here illegally. This is a crime deterrent program." The new agreement under 287(g) however, says the priority is to detain "criminal aliens" and requires that law enforcement agencies "pursue all criminal charges that originally caused the offender to be taken into custody." The Homeland Security Department says this clause was added because of public concern about officers detaining people for minor infractions such as traffic violations.
Somos America, an immigrant rights group in Arizona, argues that section 287(g) was originally created so that local and federal immigration authorities could work together to apprehend only those people who pose a threat to the community -- those who stand accused of violent or other serious crimes. They say Arpaio is overstepping that goal.
His heavy-handed sweeps of Latino neighborhoods have led to widespread fear, deep divisions in the community, 3,500 lawsuits, a U.S. Department of Justice civil rights investigation, and a nationwide reputation as the Bull Connor of our generation.
A spokesperson for the National Day Laborers Organizing Network, a Los Angeles-based coalition of workers' groups, said Arpaio's "neighborhood sweeps" have terrorized residents, and that many fear the police.
Last week, an agency in New Jersey and two in Massachusetts announced plans to terminate their 287(g) agreements with Homeland Security. Police Chief Steven Carl, from the Framingham, Mass. Office, said, "It doesn't benefit the police department to engage in deportation and immigration enforcement. We're done. I told them to come get the computers."
Tom Kelso, county counsel for Middlesex, New Jersey said the federal government "want[s] us to do their job at the county's expense."
With two lawyers at his side, including County Attorney Andrew Thomas, Arpaio said Tuesday that he will continue his efforts to enforce immigration by detaining immigrants under three state laws: a law against hiring people who are not authorized to work in the U.S., a law that denies bail for people in the country illegally who have been charged with a serious crime, and a law that allows people who are living in the country illegally to be charged as a co-conspirator in their own human smuggling.
Ira Melman of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) said 287(g) agreements bolster federal agents' efforts to enforce immigration laws in the country's interior. Melman told AP, "I suspect there is some effort there to send a warning to other police departments: Don't get too aggressive with this, because we will yank it out from under you."
"I'm going to continue doing everything I've been doing," Arpaio said in a press conference Tuesday, "In fact, it'll be easier not being handcuffed by the federal government. Nothing changes."
"I'm taking my fight to the streets of Phoenix," Arpaio said as he announced Tuesday that his office will do another immigration 'sweep' in two weeks, "This one will have a new twist. I have a new tool."
As for those picked up in the sweep, Arpaio said, "Those that have criminal offenses go directly to jail. Those without criminal charges will be turned over to ICE. If ICE refuses to take them, then I'll take a little trip to the border and then turn them over to the border."