Locals Challenge Ariz. Sheriff's Immigration Policy

Four U.S. citizens and one a legal immigrant have filed a lawsuit against Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his department for what they claim is racial profiling in Maricopa County's monitoring of illegal immigration. Mayor Phil Gordon of Phoenix, Ariz., and Corey Stewart, chairman of the Prince William County Virginia Board of Supervisors, discuss appropriate local police enforcement of state and federal immigration laws.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is Tell Me More from NPR News. This country's struggle over immigration. For years, local officials have complained that the federal government's failure to address unchecked illegal immigration has left them no choice but to address the issue themselves. For some communities, that has meant requiring the police to check immigration status, but civil rights groups have continually insisted that that kind of policing cannot be done without racial and ethnic profiling.

In Maricopa County, Arizona, these accusations have turned into a class action lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his department. It's led by five people, four U.S. citizens and a legal immigrant, who say they were unlawfully stopped and detained by sheriff's deputies because they are Latino or were speaking Spanish. One man says he was jailed for nine hours without food, water, a translator, or any explanation. Maricopa officials have denied accusations of racial profiling and have said that they will continue making immigration checks.

Joining us to talk about this, the Mayor of Phoenix, Phil Gordon, he recently asked the Justice Department to investigate Sheriff Arpaio, and the Prince William County Board of County Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart. He's an advocate of requiring police to enforce state and federal immigration laws. Welcome to you both, thank you for speaking with us.

Mayor PHIL GORDON (Democrat, Arizona): Thank you.

Mr. COREY STEWART (Chairman, Prince William County Board of County Supervisors): Thank you.

MARTIN: Mayor Gordon, if we could start with you? In April, you requested that the Justice Department investigate Sheriff Arpaio's tactics. Now, he's been controversial for years for instituting chain gangs, feeding prisoners a poor diet, making them wear pink underwear, things of that sort. What is it that now causes you to say that the Justice Department, the federal officials, need to intervene and to investigate?

Mayor GORDON: Well, in Arizona, the sheriffs have concurrent jurisdiction with city police. The City of Phoenix Police is the largest police force in the state of Arizona and has every crime fighting obligation to do and does, but it also has to deal with individuals that have been smuggling people and drugs into the city and as a result have been involved in the immigration fight like, unfortunately, most cities because the state has objected.

Unfortunately, the sheriff has gone beyond going after the criminals, those that are selling drugs, gang members, murderers, smugglers of people, and have started doing what he calls crime suppression weeps, which are really road blocks announced in advance, and sweeping individuals into a line and stopping them and, in most cases, because they are strictly brown skinned individuals, pulling them over, taking them away, and then determining their legal status. Well, unfortunately this has caught...

MARTIN: Well, how do you know that that's why? I mean, the sheriff in his written statements and his public statements has insisted that that is not the case. Is your specific criticism the idea that local police, sheriffs or police, are checking immigration status, or is it the way it's being enforced? Is it your view that he is arresting people in order to check their immigration status?

Mayor GORDON: Stopping people and arresting, yes.

MARTIN: OK.

Mayor GORDON: Unfortunately, local police are required now to do a lot of the immigration work, but we do it by the Constitution. We have some 287 G officers. We have ICE agents within our departments. I think that it's - unfortunately, it doesn't make us any safer when you have entire police agencies taking on the entire role of immigration agents and leaving the community unsafe.

MARTIN: Let's bring Chairman Stewart into the conversation. Chairman, your county police force also has the kind of long-term cooperative relationship with Immigration, Customs, and Enforcement, or ICE, that a lot of other jurisdictions have. They're supposed to or are allowed to check immigration status after someone has been arrested. How do you think that's working so far? It was also controversial when it was instituted in Prince William County, Virginia. How do you think it's working so far?

Mr. STEWART: Well, it's really exceeded our expectations. The drop in the crime rate from one year to the next of 19.3 percent. You know, for a large jurisdiction like Prince William, that's a huge drop in the crime rate.

At the same time, those (inaudible) to our north which have done nothing, such as Fairfax County, Virginia, Montgomery County, Maryland, etcetera, we know based upon some of the school records that many of the illegal immigrants who are leaving Prince William County, up to two-thirds of them are moving up to Fairfax, and their crime rate at the same period has spiked by a record 22 percent.

MARTIN: Do you think that this crime rate drop is due to the fact that just people are leaving, or that people who are inclined to break the law are being detained? What's your take? Or is it just that people are leaving the county because they're afraid?

Mr. STEWART: Well, that's a good question. I'm not sure why, but I mean, the key here is that as illegal immigrants are fleeing Prince William County, our crime rate is dropping significantly, and as they move to another jurisdiction, their crime rate is spiking. There is definitely, I believe, a connection between higher crime rates and the concentrations of illegal immigrants outside a locality.

MARTIN: Now, and Chairman Stewart, as you know, we've talked about this before, that some critics say it's impossible not to racially profile when you have local police implementing immigration policies. That it's just - it's just impossible, really, not to draw the line. What do you say to that?

Mr. STEWART: Well, it's critical that you not racial profile. It's critical not only to the program, but, you know, racial profiling is morally wrong. It's illegal, and quite frankly, racial profiling simply doesn't make any sense in a jurisdiction that is as diverse as Prince William County, with 47 percent of the population being racial minorities.

And the reality is is that, you know, our police, and I'm sure the police department - sheriff's department in Maricopa County is the same - and that is, you know, we've gone through extra training to make sure that our officers are not engaged in that. An immigration status is never checked unless there's been - it's incident to a lawful stop.

MARTIN: But people say that, in fact, these stops, it's very easy to stop anybody for anything. You can say you can stop somebody for, you know, failure to signal a lane change, which I'm sure all of us have done at some point, or a broken tail light. It just opens the door to sort of harassing people for small things, and as the mayor was suggesting, that perhaps you're allowing people who are engaged in more critically important or more dangerous activity go to unchecked. What do you say to that? What's your experience?

Mr. STEWART: The reality is, is that, if somebody is here in the country illegally, there should be some fear. There should be some fear that they're going to be stopped and then possibly deported. They shouldn't be in the country in the first place if they're illegally present in the United States.

MARTIN: If you're just tuning, in you're listening to Tell Me More from NPR News. We're speaking with Mayor Phil Gordon from Phoenix, Arizona and Prince William Board of County's Supervisor's Chairman Corey Stewart, that's Prince William County, Virginia. They're offering two views of asking local police to enforce local immigration law.

Mayor Gordon, I wanted to mention that Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano has withdrawn some state funding from the sheriff's office, arguing that the money was supposed to be used for gang suppression or gang enforcement, or to fight, you know, violent gangs. And she's saying that having it be used in this way is not productive. Could you just talk a little bit more about that?

Mayor GORDON: Certainly, and while I can't comment on another jurisdiction, I know every major city in the country has crime, whether it's going down, like in Phoenix, or going up in other major cities. But, you know, there is still way too much violent crime and major property crime, and to divert resources to go out looking for individuals that have now not committed a law - breaking a law since crossing the border without papers is a waste of resources and actually endangers the community. What we've done is now created the fear of individuals that testify, as in Phoenix's case, murderers and drug dealers, for fear that their families may get deported, even if they're legal.

MARTIN: Let me ask Chairman Stewart this. There are those who have continually expressed concern that when the local police are used to check immigration, it makes it harder for people to trust them.

Mr. STEWART: Well, you know, we, like Maricopa County, we've made it very clear that we are not going to check immigration status of witnesses, cooperative witnesses, or victims of crimes. But the reality is, and I think this is something that the mayor will not acknowledge here, and that is that many of the people who enter this county illegally are criminals. And in some cases people have fled their home countries because...

MARTIN: By many, what do you mean? You believe what, that a majority of people who've come to this country in an undocumented status have committed some crime or other crime other than being undocumented.

Mr. STEWART: I don't believe that, but what I do believe is that this is a core problem with illegal immigration. There's no check. There's no screening of the people who are entering the country. We do not know if they have criminal records.

MARTIN: Let's let the mayor respond.

Mayor GORDON: You know, I won't disagree, in the sense that there are illegal felons coming across and terrorizing our country. The problem is the federal government needs to secure the border. That's what this country was founded on. What is occurring, though, is that you have major, major criminals that we need our people to testify that are here - and by the way, even with the operational order that Phoenix has, which does protect witnesses for testimony of victims, the problem is the sheriff then can wait until they testify and then take them away and arrest them, so it stops. What we've done now is protect felons against individuals that haven't done anything since crossing the border.

MARTIN: Finally mayor, I wanted to ask this. This is something that the sheriff has said in responding to these complaints about his policies and tactics in the past. And in fact, I should mention that we will have a statement from the sheriff issued by his office in response to this specific law suit on our website, npr.org/tellmemore.

But what do you say to those who argue that the public wants this done? And as an elected official, you're responsive to their desires, and that the public wishes that all the levels of government to be responsive to illegal immigration.

Mayor GORDON: And all levels are since 9/11. Everybody local has been doing a lot of what the federal government always had to do. But I agree, people want illegal immigration stopped, and with technology today, we should be able to regulate the border and monitor who's coming in and not coming and match up labor needs with non-labor needs.

But I don't believe anyone with any decency in the majority of this country - the vast majority is - wants constitutional rights violated, wants families broken up. You know, this country was founded on immigrants, and we have to work this through with a constitutional basis and a humane basis.

But we should be going after and Phoenix does go after. We arrest more illegal aliens in the city of Phoenix than the sheriff by tenfold, but they're the criminals and until that aspect is done, taking local law enforcement and looking for illegal immigrants that aren't committing felons is a waste of resources.

MARTIN: We have to leave it there for now. There's an important conversation. I'm hoping we'll return to it. Phil Gordon is the Mayor of Phoenix, Arizona. He was kind enough to join us in our Washington D.C. studios. Virginia's Prince William County Board of Supervisor's Chairman, Corey Stewart joined us today by phone. I thank you both so much for speaking with us.

Mayor GORDON: Thank you.

Mr. STEWART: Thank you.

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