PHOENIX, Ariz. – Word spread like wildfire in the North Phoenix neighborhood: Sheriff Joe Arpaio was coming to do an immigration sweep. His agency had received a letter circulated by a member of an immigration restrictionist group that was signed by eight businesses complaining about day laborers in the area.
“Our street corners are filled with illegal day-laborers that intimidate our clients and create a negative atmosphere,” read the letter circulated by “Buffalo” Rick Galeener, a long-time Arpaio supporter and critic of a day labor site in the area.
The sweep, in March 2008 in a mostly Latino neighborhood, was part of a shift in focus by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office toward immigration enforcement – something Arpaio has said was in response to what his constituents wanted.
At the time he said he was also responding to a spike in crime in the area, a claim that was later denied by the Phoenix Police Department.
Arpaio used a 287(g) agreement – a cooperation agreement signed between federal immigration authorities and local police -- that gave immigration powers to his deputies to conduct sweeps like this one.
The manner in which he conducted what he called “crime suppression patrols,” and his motivations are at the heart of a four-year-long civil rights lawsuit in which he will testify today.
A team of attorneys from private firms, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) argue that Arpaio’s agency engaged in racial profiling of Latinos and that he allowed it.
“The problem here starts from the top,” said Stanley Young, one of the plaintiff’s attorneys during opening arguments of the trial in front of judge G. Murray Snow.
Today, plaintiff attorneys will focus on Arpaio’s shift in policies to make immigration one of his priorities in response to his constituents, his response to racially charged letters to conduct sweeps and statements he made to the media.
“We have the burden of proving that there was a pattern and practice of racial discriminatory intent,” said Daniel Pochoda, an attorney at Arizona’s ACLU.
Pochoda contends the civil rights violations the agency allegedly engaged in were not anecdotal but repeated, and that Arpaio, as the “CEO” of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, “is responsible for what goes on in his agency.”
Arpaio, 80, has been in power for 20 years but his interest in immigration enforcement shifted in 2005 with the election of former Maricopa County attorney Andrew Thomas who ran on the promise of stopping illegal immigration.
Thomas and Arpaio teamed up to enforce a state anti-human-smuggling law and use it to go after undocumented immigrants who had paid smugglers to enter the country.
In 2007, Arpaio took his immigration enforcement up a notch by signing a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to deputize 160 of his officers to enforce immigration laws.
In a press conference shortly thereafter, Arpaio said, "Ours is an operation where we want to go after illegals not the crime first...It's a pure program. You go after them, and you lock them up."
The agreement was eventually rescinded by Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano amid reports of racial profiling of Latinos.
But Arpaio continued his immigration sweeps.
His enforcement also led to a Department of Justice investigation into alleged civil rights violations and a recently filed lawsuit that accuses his agency of racial profiling and abuse of power.
Some critics of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office policies are wary of how much light would be shed on the sheriff’s operations when he testifies today -- since his previous testimony during a trial in which the state bar was investigating Thomas for ethics complaints can be summed up by the line, “I don’t recall.”
“It’s going to be interesting [to see] what Arpaio shows up. Is it going to be the Arpaio that forgets everything, that says I don’t remember, I don’t know, I left it to my underlings?” wondered Mary Rose Wilcox, a supervisor for the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors and longtime critic of Arpaio’s immigration enforcement.
During his first deposition by plaintiff’s attorneys in 2009, Arpaio was questioned as to the whether or not he conceded that his officers could be engaging in racial profiling.
"You don't think there is even a chance of racial profiling occurring today?" asked David Bodney, a civil rights attorney who is no longer involved in the case.
Arpaio responded: "Once again, I have confidence in my staff. And they know how to supervise our deputies and our detention officers, so I rely on their expertise and management abilities."
That deposition also revealed that Arpaio had not read the DOJ policies concerning the practice of racial profiling that pertained to his officers under the 287(g) agreement.
Part of the evidence presented by ACLU in the lawsuit includes constituents’ letters encouraging Arpaio to racially profile. These letters will be used to make the case that there was discriminatory motivation at the heart of Arpaio’s enforcement of immigration.
One of the letters received on June 19th, 2008 read: “If you have dark skin, then you have dark skin! Unfortunately, that is the look of the Mexican illegal who are here ILLEGALLY […] They bring their unclean, disrespectful, integrity-less, law breaking selves here […] I am begging you to come over to the 29thSt/Greenway Pkwy area and round them all up!...They crawl around here all day and night.”
According to a motion filed in the lawsuit: “The record shows numerous instances in which Sheriff Arpaio annotated such requests and forwarded them to other members of the MCSO leadership, primarily Chief Brian Sands, who is charged with selecting sites for saturation patrol operations.”
Attorneys also claim in the lawsuit that, “Arpaio has not only adopted the racial sentiments of his constituents, he has expressed them as his own in public statements gratuitously stigmatizing undocumented immigrants from Mexico.”
“Sheriff Arpaio went out of his way to emphasize that the illegal immigration issue had become an ‘epidemic,’ and that immigration from Mexico is impacting our culture due to a failure to ‘assimilate’ into ‘mainstream’ America,” reads one of the legal filings in the case.
Tim Casey, one of the attorneys representing Arpaio, distanced Arpaio’s statements to the press and the letters he received from constituents from his saturation patrols during the first day of trial.
"Race or ethnicity had nothing to do with the initiation, planning or execution of these things. MCSO operations focus on crime and only crime. We enforce all the laws, whether they're popular or not,” he said.
The trial is expected to end on Aug. 2 and Judge Snow said he will rule on the case based on the facts as they stand now and not as they were in 2007, when the sheriff started his immigration enforcement tactics.
The class action lawsuit, which represents all Latinos in Maricopa County but has five lead plaintiffs including four U.S. citizens and a Mexican tourist, doesn’t seek monetary damages or compensation. Instead, it seeks changes to the policies that would prevent discriminatory practices.
The focus of the first hearing was on statistics and numbers, as well as the testimony of two U.S. citizens who said the sheriff’s deputies had racially profiled them during traffic stops.
Ralph Taylor, a professor at Temple University who studied the sheriff's saturation patrols and traffic stops between January 2007 and October 2009, said that Latino drivers were more likely to be detained during immigration sweeps than on other days and for longer periods of time than other ethnic groups.
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