Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, Migration & Refugees, North America

RIGHTS-US: Sheriff Faces Long-Awaited Federal Probe

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX. Arizona, Sep 17 2009 (IPS) - The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has slammed its door on a federal investigation into allegations of civil rights violations. But immigrant communities in Arizona have reopened them.

For the past year, protesters have gathered regularly outside Sheriff Arpaio's downtown Phoenix offices.  Credit: Valeria Fernandez/IPS

For the past year, protesters have gathered regularly outside Sheriff Arpaio's downtown Phoenix offices. Credit: Valeria Fernandez/IPS

Two weeks ago, U.S. Justice Department investigators met with religious and community leaders in Arizona to hear testimony from people impacted by the sheriff's policies outside and within his jails.

Complaints of racial profiling in traffic stops, and physical and verbal abuse in the jails have mounted against the sheriff's deputies for the last couple of years. But tensions have escalated since Sheriff Joseph Arpaio signed an agreement with the federal government to enforce immigration laws.

The controversial 287(g) programme has been used to train 160 deputies in Maricopa County who conduct immigration sweeps in Latino neighborhoods and markets.

Last year, under the George W. Bush administration, Phoenix's Mayor Phil Gordon wrote a letter to the Justice Department asking it to initiate an investigation over concerns of racial profiling. In March of this year, under the leadership of a new U.S. attorney general, Eric Holder, the Justice Department launched a probe.

Arpaio refused to cooperate with the investigation, which he claimed was politically motivated.

"It only took them 60 days to come after me," Arpaio said. "Sixty days. It usually takes about two years to open up a letter in the Justice Department."

The time frame of the probe is unclear. An investigator who recently visited Arizona would not comment on the pending case.

"There are some tragic things going on inside those jails that most people ignore," said Kevin Gibbons, a local immigration attorney.

Gibbons represents Alejandra Alvarez, an immigrant woman who was detained in a landscaping company raid by sheriff's deputies for working with fake documents. Her jaw was allegedly broken during the arrest. After three months in jail, she complained that she didn't receive proper medical care for her injury.

"The investigation can be only as good as the information we're giving them," said Salvador Reza, a local organiser from the pro-immigrant movement PUENTE. "Testimonies are coming out, but some of the people who can be a witness to what happens in the jails are in Mexico now."

According to the line of questioning, some community activists believe it might extend to possible violations of Title 6 within the jails. That refers to an aspect of federal law that requires information and materials to be provided in English and other languages, such as Spanish, as a condition to receive government funding.

"He's not giving prisoners a proper translation of some of the proceedings that take place within the jails," said Pastor Magdalena Schwartz, of the Disciples of the Kingdom Free Methodist Church in Mesa.

The current investigation against the country's self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff" is not of a criminal nature – though some of his critics wished it was.

"We want the investigation to result in the pressing of charges against Arpaio, for intimidation, for violation of civil rights and also for criminal acts committed by his officers within his jails," said Reza.

Despite the recent visit by Justice Department officials, many remain sceptical about the overall impact of the investigation.

"As I understand it, there are two investigations. I have very little expectations of the civil rights investigation and the findings that he has violated civil rights," said Alfredo Gutiérrez, owner and editor of the online news site La Frontera Times.

"The other investigation has to do with their overall behaviour, the management of money and what their deputies have been doing in Honduras, and now it's falling apart," he said.

Gutiérrez was referring to questions raised about the use of RICO (Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organisations, a federal statute used to prosecute mafia and drug syndicates) funding or money seized from crime activities for training of the Honduran police.

"The reason we know this is because they keep asking us questions," said Gutiérrez, a former Arizona Democratic senator. "Their investigation has taken them in a direction we didn't anticipate."

For the past year, a steady group of people has been protesting outside Sheriff Arpaio's downtown Phoenix offices to bring attention to the plight of immigrant families impacted by his tactics. And some feel it's starting to pay off.

"We want to stop the injustices against us," said Victor Hugo Preciado.

Preciado believes the sheriff is only helping big corporations make money from immigrants being turned over for detention.

"We don't agree with what he's doing, separating families. I don't think it's the solution," said Alicia Samudio, 40, another protester.

The group organised by the PUENTE movement plans to continue the protest for as long as Arpaio is in office.

This is not the first time allegations of abuse within Arpaio's jails have come to light over the 16 years that the sheriff has been in office.

The best-known case involved the death of inmate Scott Norberg in a restraint chair in 1996. His family settled a lawsuit for 8.25 million dollars against the sheriff's office.

Nor is it the first time Arpaio's office has been investigated. The Justice Department started an investigation on 1995 that resulted in an agreement two years later to eliminate the use of restraining chairs and other tactics.

In 1997, Amnesty International condemned the mistreatment of pre-trial inmates in these facilities.

But this is the first time the accusations underscore the possible misuse of powers given by the federal government to enforce immigration laws within the jails.

Recently, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office was sued by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) on behalf of Julio Mora, a U.S. citizen and his father Julian Mora, a permanent legal resident, who alleged racial profiling.

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