PHOENIX â€“ Lost in the hoopla over Arizona’s immigration law is the fact that state and local authorities for years have been doing their own aggressive crackdowns in the busiest illegal gateway into the country.
Nowhere in the U.S. is local enforcement more present than in metropolitan Phoenix, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio routinely carries out sweeps, some in Hispanic neighborhoods, to arrest illegal immigrants. The tactics have made him the undisputed poster boy for local immigration enforcement and the anger that so many authorities feel about the issue.
“It’s my job,” said Arpaio, standing beside a sheriff’s truck that has a number for an immigration hot line written on its side. “I have two state (immigration) laws that I am enforcing. It’s not federal, it’s state.”
A ruling Wednesday by a federal judge put on hold parts of the new law that would have required officers to dig deeper into the fight against illegal immigration. Arizona says it was forced to act because the federal government isn’t doing its job to fight immigration.
The issue led to demonstrations across the country Thursday, including one directed at Arpaio in Phoenix in which protesters beat on the metal door of a jail and chanted, “Sheriff Joe, we are here. We will not live in fear.” And in another sign of the divisive atmosphere surrounding the issue, authorities said the judge had received menacing threats and police were investigating whether a bullet hole found in the office of an Arizona congressman was related to the immigration debate.
In total, 71 people were arrested during the Thursday protests, officials said Friday.
Meanwhile, Gov. Jan Brewer’s lawyers went to court to overturn the judge’s ruling so they can fight back against what the Republican calls an “invasion” of illegal immigrants. The state of Arizona has received more than $1.6 million in a fund to help defend the new law, including $75,000 on Wednesday, the day parts of the law were blocked.
Ever since the main flow of illegal immigrants into the country shifted to Arizona a decade ago, state politicians and local police have been feeling pressure to confront the state’s border woes.
The Arizona Legislature have enacted a series of tough-on-immigration measures in recent years that culminated with the law signed by Brewer in April, catapulting the Republican to the national political stage.
But the king of local immigration enforcement is still Arpaio.
Arpaio, a 78-year-old ex-federal drug agent who fashions himself as a modern-day John Wayne, launched his latest sweep Thursday afternoon, sending about 200 sheriff’s deputies and trained volunteers out across metro Phoenix to look for traffic violators who may be here illegally.
Deputy Bob Dalton and volunteer Heath Kowacz spotted a driver with a cracked windshield in a poor Phoenix neighborhood near a busy freeway. Dalton triggered the red and blue police lights and pulled over 28-year-old Alfredo Salas, who was born in Mexico but has lived in Phoenix with a resident alien card since 1993.
Dalton gave him a warning after Salas produced his license and registration and told him to get the windshield fixed.
Salas, a married father of two who installs granite, told The Associated Press that he was treated well but he wondered whether he was pulled over because his truck is a Ford Lobo.
“It’s a Mexican truck so I don’t know if they saw that and said, ‘I wonder if he has papers or not,'” Salas said. “If that’s the case, it kind of gets me upset.”
Sixty percent of the nearly 1,000 people arrested in the sweeps since early 2008 have been illegal immigrants. Thursday’s dragnet led to 13 arrests for warrants or other criminal charges, but it wasn’t clear if any of them were illegal immigrants.
Critics say deputies racially profile Hispanics. Arpaio says deputies approach people only when they have probable cause.
“Sheriff Joe Arpaio and some other folks there decided they can make a name for themselves in terms of the intensity of the efforts they’re using,” said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the pro-immigrant American Immigration Council. “There’s no way to deny that. There are a lot of people getting caught up in these efforts.”
The Justice Department launched an investigation of his office nearly 17 months ago over allegations of discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures. Although the department has declined to detail its investigation, Arpaio believes it centers on his sweeps.
Arpaio feels no reservations about continuing to push the sweeps, even after the federal government stripped his power to let 100 deputies make federal immigration arrests.
Unable to make arrests under a federal statute, the sheriff instead relied on a nearly 5-year-old state law that prohibits immigrant smuggling. He has also raided 37 businesses in enforcing a state law that prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
“I’m not going to brag,” Arpaio said. “Just look at the record. I’m doing what I feel is right for the people of Maricopa County.”