Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

MIGRATION-US: Controversial Sheriff Dismisses Federal Probe

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, Oct 8 2009 (IPS) - Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, nationally known for his crackdown on undocumented migrants in Arizona, could have all of his immigration enforcement powers taken away by the federal government.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio says he will continue his immigration raids even if stripped of the federal powers to do it.  Credit: Valeria Fernandez/IPS

Sheriff Joe Arpaio says he will continue his immigration raids even if stripped of the federal powers to do it. Credit: Valeria Fernandez/IPS

A new proposed 287(g) agreement will limit his ability to conduct immigration sweeps, and confine his role to identifying undocumented migrants that enter his jails.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS), which oversees enforcement of federal immigration laws, has not signed the new contract yet and has not confirmed whether or not it will continue working with Arpaio in any fashion.

But the self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in the country promised to continue his controversial immigration raids even if stripped of the federal powers to do it.

“I’m going to continue doing everything that I’ve been doing, now I’m free of the federal government,” he said during a press conference Tuesday.

The sheriff said that he will drive undocumented immigrants to the U.S.-Mexico border if immigration authorities refuse to take custody of them.

Arpaio’s agency has the largest number of deputies in the nation trained to enforce immigration laws. This has been possible through a 287(g) agreement signed in 2007 with DHS.

The use of the programme by Arpaio’s office has drawn national criticism by civil rights and pro-immigrant organisations that argue the sheriff’s deputies engage in racial profiling. Currently, the U.S. Department of Justice is conducting an investigation into those allegations and possible rights violations within the sheriff’s jails.

In one prominent case, Alejandra Alvarez, an immigrant woman, 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.

In addition to charges of verbal and physical abuse, activists have also raised 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.

In July, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano announced changes to the 287(g) agreements nationally, saying they will focus on the detection and apprehension of immigrants with a criminal record.

DHS gave all 66 participating agencies a 90-day-period to review the new contracts and sign them. The period is up on Oct. 14.

DHS would not comment on any pending agreements.

Pro-immigrant groups, locally and nationally, argue that the 287(g) programme doesn’t need to be mended, it needs to be terminated.

“With the problems Arpaio has within his jails, how can DHS allow him to continue to have these powers?” asked Salvador Reza, an activist from Puente, a pro-immigrant group in Arizona.

“Napolitano and President [Barack] Obama need to think it through and realise that the 287(g) agreements are going to bring more legal problems – and also lose them the Latino vote,” he added.

Reza said that pro-immigrant activists are planning a series of protests should the federal government sign a new agreement with Arpaio.

Local activists in Arizona are also alarmed at the implications of the continuance of the programme within the jails.

“The problem is that any police officer – regardless of the jurisdiction – who has anti-immigrant beliefs is going to find excuses to arrest Mexicans, Guatemalans and even Native Americans to bring them to the jails,” said Reza. “This is a problem that is happening already.”

Reverend Lianna Rowe of the United Church of Christ has been observing the situation in Maricopa County.

“It’s been proven that this is a very dysfunctional way to conduct law enforcement,” said Rowe. “It is really an unfortunate message that the federal government is willing to sacrifice members of our community.”

Rowe pointed out Arpaio has been going after immigrants who commit minor traffic infractions in order to deport them, when he could be focusing resources on capturing dangerous criminals.

Last year, the East Valley Tribune, a local newspaper in Arizona, published a report showing that Arpaio’s crackdown on illegal immigration was impacting the response times of his agency to emergency calls and the investigation of serious crimes. The report went on to win a Pulitzer Prize.

The outcome in Maricopa is being monitored very closely by national groups, because it could offer a glimpse of the role localities will play in immigration enforcement under the Obama administration.

“If DHS continues its relationship with Joe Arpaio, it is making a historic mistake by lending the full force and legitimacy of the federal government to a rogue cop certain to go down in history as a serial violator of civil rights and an enemy of the Latino community,” said Frank Sharry, executive director of America’s Voice, a pro-immigrant organisation in Washington, in a press release Tuesday.

On Sep. 28, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) sent a letter to President Obama calling for the termination of all 287(g) programmes across the country.

“The misuse of the 287(g) programme by its current participants has rendered it ineffective and dangerous to community safety,” read the letter.

It was signed by CHC chair Rep. Nydia Velázquez, a New York Democrat, and Rep. Luis V. Gutiérrez, a Democrat of Illinois.

“Although its stated purpose is to provide law enforcement a tool to pursue criminals, it is our experience that state and local law enforcement officials actually use their expanded and often unchecked powers under the program to target immigrants and persons of color,” the letter said.

Secretary Napolitano has been a longtime supporter of the use of 287(g) programmes in jails and prisons. While she was governor of Arizona, the state prisons signed an agreement with the federal government. The memorandum allowed jailers to determine the immigration status of prisoners before their release and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody, a department of DHS.

Regardless of what the federal government decides, Arpaio can still use state laws to arrest undocumented immigrants.

For the past two years, he has been conducting raids at workplaces thought the use of the state employer sanctions law. A state human smuggling law – known as the anti-coyote law – has allowed him to incarcerate migrants who hire smugglers to cross the border.

The sheriff and his supporters also argue he doesn’t need “permission” from the federal government to detain undocumented immigrants citing the 1996 immigration control legislation.

“If you’re not going to enforce 287(g), just take it away and let Arpaio enforce the state laws he has available,” said Gary Rose, a Phoenix resident and longtime supporter of Arpaio. Rose believes local law enforcement needs to help deport all undocumented immigrants because he feels they abuse public benefits.

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