Headlines, Human Rights, Migration & Refugees, North America

U.S.: Arizona Renews Push to Criminalise Immigrants

Valeria Fernández

PHOENIX, Arizona, Oct 28 2009 (IPS) - Arizona could become the first state in the U.S. to criminalise the very presence of undocumented immigrants.

Republican Senator Russell Pearce is pushing to pass a state law that would allow the police to arrest anyone on suspicion of being undocumented.  Credit: Valeria Fernández/IPS

Republican Senator Russell Pearce is pushing to pass a state law that would allow the police to arrest anyone on suspicion of being undocumented. Credit: Valeria Fernández/IPS

Local politicians renewed a push to pass legislation that would make it a misdemeanor to trespass on state lands, allowing local police to arrest anyone illegally in the country.

Arizona has been called a “laboratory for anti-immigrant laws” for the rest of the U.S. In 2007, the state adopted one of the country’s toughest employer sanctions laws for companies that knowingly hire undocumented labour.

The campaign in favour of the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighbourhoods Act” was launched after the federal government limited Maricopa County sheriff deputies’ powers to enforce immigration law.

The enforcement of immigration law is considered the purview of the federal government in the U.S., but Arizona has been at the forefront of efforts to grant local police the ability to detain and deport undocumented immigrants.

“The feds [federal government] have been absent, and now they took it a step farther by refusing to let other people do their jobs,” said Republican Senator Russell Pearce, who was crucial in the approval of the employer sanctions law.

Pearce believes local police have the inherent authority to enforce federal immigration laws. And so does Sheriff Joe Arpaio, one of the most controversial figures in the illegal immigration crackdown in Arizona.

That’s at least what he’s been claiming ever since the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) stripped his deputies of the powers to act as immigration officers in the community.

Arpaio had one of the largest forces in the nation deputised to enforce immigration laws on the streets and in the jails under an agreement with DHS known as 287(g).

John Morton, assistant secretary of Homeland Security, said Arpaio’s sweeps were not consistent with the priorities of the new revised programme, which involves the capture of undocumented immigrants who committed serious crimes.

The backlash among conservative politicians in the state was almost immediate.

“This is a corrective action taken because Washington refuses to correct our borders,” said J.D Hayworth, a former congressional representative and conservative talk show host who supports the measure.

The new initiative also got the support of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association (PLEA), which represents over 2,000 police officers in the state.

However, the new legislation may not succeed at the State Legislature. During the last two years, similar versions where vetoed by then governor Janet Napolitano, currently the secretary of Homeland Security. This year also saw the failure of some 27 bills aimed at clamping down on immigrants.

But Senator Pearce hopes it will have a chance to get approved by Arizona voters in November 2010.

“People are starting to become aware of what’s happening, Americans are standing up,” said Pam Pearson, a supporter. “[Undocumented immigrants] can take their children back home with them, they should go home and come back correctly.”

In 2006, four ballot initiatives aimed at undocumented immigrants – including making English the official language of the state – succeeded with 70 percent of the public vote.

“We will defeat these bills in court,” said criminal attorney Antonio Bustamante. A fervent critic of Sheriff Arpaio, he said the proposal is clearly unconstitutional in trying to regulate an area that is reserved to the federal government.

So far most efforts to defeat this initiative in the courtroom have been rejected by judges and are undergoing an appeal process.

Currently, Arpaio is using some of the state laws at his disposal to continue to conduct raids in Latino neighbourhoods and businesses.

During his latest raid in a Latino neighbourhood west of Phoenix, his deputies arrested 66 people, about half of whom were suspected undocumented immigrants.

Most people were detained through traffic stops.

The sheriff created uproar after a comment he made during a press conference last week about the guidelines his deputies follow to question people on their immigration status.

“There are certain criteria. No identification, looking like they just came from Mexico, and they admit it. So that’s enough,” he said.

Arpaio is currently under investigation by the Department of Justice (DOJ) for allegations of racial profiling and abuse during his immigration crackdown.

“He’s mocking his own government and separating parents from their children in the process,” said Francisco Rojo, an undocumented immigrant who drove a bike to work during the day of the raid to avoid being pulled over. “I truly hope [President Barack] Obama will do something to stop him.”

Maricopa County Attorney, Andrew Thomas, is expecting quite the contrary.

“Arizona is leading the way in the fight against illegal immigration,” said Thomas.

He is expected to issue a local opinion as to whether or not local police can enforce federal immigration law, upon Sheriff’s Arpaio request.

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