Tucson Police Chief On Ariz. Immigration Law

The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments this week on a controversial Arizona law. The law is intended to deter illegal immigration by requiring local law enforcement to get involved. If police have a reasonable suspicion that someone is in the country illegally, the law requires them to determine immigration status. Melissa Block talks with Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor about the implications for his department should the Supreme Court uphold the law.

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MELISSA BLOCK, HOST:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

The Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling on Arizona's controversial immigration law in a couple of months. The justices heard arguments in the case yesterday.

BLOCK: Those on the frontlines of law enforcement in Arizona are in limbo, waiting to see if the law is upheld. Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor joins me now. Welcome back to the program.

ROBERTO VILLASENOR: Thank you for having me.

BLOCK: You were on the show two years ago to the day, actually. And you said then that you were concerned about taking on a role that you didn't think you had the resources to accomplish. Any change in your thinking since then?

VILLASENOR: No, not really. In fact, if anything, I'm a little bit more concerned because since that time, we have dropped in our number of officers because of economic and budget woes. And so I'm probably down closer to 100 to 140 officers from when we last spoke two years ago.

BLOCK: And how does that affect the work that you do?

VILLASENOR: Well, it just makes us reprioritize everything that we do. And we already don't have enough time to handle the public safety issues that we deal with in this community, much less take on federal responsibilities.

BLOCK: One main provision of the Arizona law - that has not yet gone into effect - is that state law enforcement officers will have to check the citizenship status of anybody they stop or arrest, if they have reasonable suspicion that they're here illegally, and let federal authorities know. The Court yesterday didn't seem inclined to uphold that provision. What do you think about that?

VILLASENOR: Well, I mean, that's the system. If the court hears the arguments, and if the court decides that that is appropriate and that will become the law of the land, then we will definitely enforce it. It will cause issues for my community and other communities with high Latino or Hispanic populations. Those issues could run from civil unrest or to increased lack of safety because of lack of cooperation.

BLOCK: Civil unrest, you really see the likelihood of that if this were to go into effect?

VILLASENOR: Well, my interpretation of civil unrest is maybe different from others. I'm talking about legitimate, legal protests. There could be areas where it steps beyond that, I hope that's not the case. It's a very emotional topic here.

BLOCK: Chief Villasenor, I've seen this statistic that about 60 percent of Arizonans do support this immigration law. Does that seem to be the case based on what you know where you are in Tucson?

VILLASENOR: I don't know if that's, you know, that's a statewide statistic. I don't know if that level of support is here in Tucson. Undoubtedly, there are people in Tucson and in southern Arizona that adamantly support the law. Where I come at from is the specific law enforcement aspect. I know the impact it will have on my agency. I know that the workload for my agency will be incredibly increased.

I am also aware that the federal government is not going to be able to handle the amount of calls and inquiries that we will be putting forth to them, based upon how the law is written. And we're talking about reasonable suspicion - in those circumstances when we have the lawful stop - that we have to determine immigration status. But we haven't even touched on the aspect of the requirement for all arrestees to have immigration status determined before release.

Now, what people don't know is that oftentimes, an arrest, or an arrestee, doesn't mean someone goes to jail. It's a citation and a release. The way the law is written, it applies to those circumstances as well. And right now, the only way the federal government has set up for us to determine immigration status is to go through the Law Enforcement Support Center, which is one or two phone lines somewhere out of this state, where we will just flood those lines and there will be no way for us to determine that immigration status.

BLOCK: And meantime, those folks would have to be in your custody.

VILLASENOR: According to the way the law is written, yes.

BLOCK: Chief Villasenor, I've seen that supporters of the immigration law in Arizona call it attrition through enforcement. And they often point to a number - coming I think from the Department of Homeland Security - that there are 100,000 fewer illegal immigrants in Arizona now compared with 2009. Do you think it might be having that deterrent effect that its drafters may have intended? In other words, if we have a tough law, illegal immigrants won't be coming as much to Arizona.

VILLASENOR: Well, I think undoubtedly, that's been part of the result of this law. But also, I don't think it can claim full responsibility. You also have to look at the influx of resources from DHS and Border Patrol, and the sheer number of personnel that they have put along the Southwest border and the deterrent aspect that that provides.

But I do think that the law has served as a deterrent, and illegal immigrants probably view Arizona as a place they do not want to be. So in that area, I think they have been successful.

BLOCK: Well, Chief Villasenor, it's good to talk with you. Thanks so much.

VILLASENOR: Thanks for having me on board.

BLOCK: That's Roberto Villasenor. He is chief of the Tucson Police Department. We were talking about Arizona's immigration law, SB 1070. The U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments on its constitutionality this week.

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