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RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:

A divide over the issue of immigration is playing out in Arizona. The self-proclaimed toughest sheriff in America is facing one of his toughest tests. A trial begins today in Phoenix, accusing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio of violating the civil rights of Latino citizens and legal U.S. residents.

NPR's Ted Robbins has more about the class-action civil suit.

TED ROBBINS, BYLINE: For years, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's deputies have been running what he calls crime suppression sweeps - one, two, or three-day operations where deputies fan out across neighborhoods in the Phoenix area. Before one sweep in 2008, Arpaio admitted looking for a particular kind of suspect.

SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO: If we come across any illegal aliens during the course of this operation, they will be arrested and put in jail.

ROBBINS: Five U.S. citizens and legal residents are named plaintiffs in the lawsuit. The evidence also includes declarations from people like Adolfo Maldonado.

ADOLFO MALDONADO: I was pulled over twice, two separate instances, two different suppression raids.

ROBBINS: Maldonado was born in Mexico and has been a legal permanent resident of the U.S. since 1989. The first time he was stopped in his car, he says a deputy held him and his brother for 10 minutes, then let him go. The second time, he says he was stopped because his vehicle registration had expired. But instead of just getting a ticket, Maldonado says the deputy first asked for his Social Security number. He refused to answer.

MALDONADO: He asked me whether I was in the country legally. I asked him if I needed to answer that. He said no. And so I refrained from answering those questions.

ROBBINS: Maldonado says he got a ticket after being held for a half hour. ACLU attorney Cecilia Wang is representing the plaintiffs.

CECILIA WANG: The sheriff has essentially equated, quote, illegal with Latino. And he and his deputies have gone out and disproportionately stopped Latinos and people that they presume to be Latino.

ROBBINS: In order to win, the plaintiffs have to prove that Sheriff Arpaio's department engaged in systematic racial profiling. Federal Judge Murray Snow will hear from the plaintiffs, from the author of a study showing Latinos in Maricopa County are more likely to be stopped, and stopped for longer periods of time. And the judge will hear from the Sheriff himself. Lawyers will ask Arpaio to explain his response to inflammatory emails and letters he received.

WANG: Letters would say things like: There are Mexicans hanging out on such and such a corner, I think you need to do something about it.

ROBBINS: Wang says Sheriff Arpaio wouldn't just toss or file the correspondence. He'd send thank you notes, then pass along the messages to his chief deputy marked: For Our Operations.

WANG: What you see is a pattern where the sheriff would acknowledge a racially discriminatory letter from a constituent. And then, following that, you would see the sheriff go in and do an immigration sweep, in the very area that had been singled out in a discriminatory way by that constituent.

ROBBINS: Sheriff Arpaio and his lawyers declined a request to talk about the lawsuit. That doesn't mean he's been quiet. On Tuesday, the sheriff held a news conference to release what he called new evidence that President Obama's birth certificate is fake. Arpaio says he's been investigating that because some constituents asked him to.

And as Arpaio said to Fox News earlier this year when he announced he's running for a sixth term in November, he represents his constituents.

ARPAIO: I'm the elected sheriff of Maricopa County - the four million people I'm responsible for.

ROBBINS: The trial seeks no money. It asks the court to order the policies stopped and to appoint a monitor to assure they do. Arpaio also faces a similar lawsuit brought by the U.S. Justice Department.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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