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The sluggish pace of the immigration overhaul in Washington has frustrated a number of states. In fact, some state legislatures have gone ahead and passed new immigration laws of their own. In Arizona, where more people cross the border illegally than anywhere else, a county sheriff is going one step father. He is enforcing a state law against immigrant smuggling in a way that the measure's sponsors did not intend.

NPR's Ted Robbins reports.

TED ROBBINS: Officially, it was a briefing. But you might also call it a coming out party for a new law enforcement policy.

Unidentified Man: Okay, we need all the deputies to get up here to the front.

ROBBINS: In a county parking lot west of Phoenix, 100 or so uniformed civilian volunteers, called the posse, joined regular deputies and a media gaggle surrounding Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

JOE ARPAIO: I am enforcing the law.

ROBBINS: That pretty well sums up the man sometimes called the toughest cop in America. Joe Arpaio is the guy who makes county inmates put on pink underwear, houses many of them in tents and feeds them green baloney sandwiches as creative punishment. Tonight, he's explaining his decision to enforce a state law making it a felony to smuggle immigrants. It's already a federal crime.

What the sheriff and the Maricopa County Attorney have decided, though, is to arrest any illegal immigrant as a smuggler. Arpaio says they are smuggling themselves.

ARPAIO: Common sense answer, if you conspire with a smuggler, if you conspire with a dope peddler, you're as guilty as that person is. Very simple.

ROBBINS: Maricopa County sheriff's deputies have actually been enforcing the new policy for two months. So far, they've arrested nearly 150 people. Tonight, the sheriff has arranged for media to ride along with deputies. I'm with Brian Bern, a big man who's driving a big SUV. He explains that the smuggling arrests are secondary. He has to stop a vehicle for something else first.

BRIAN BERN: Yeah, you can't just go out and profile somebody and say oh, well, you know, it's a Cadillac so we're going to pull it over. Or it's a blue car, we're going to pull it over. You know, you can't do stuff like that.

ROBBINS: Or the driver has brown skin?

BERN: Or the driver has brown skin. Can't do that.

ROBBINS: That would be racial profiling. Of course, it's dark and we're in the middle of farmland and the desert, so the only thing we can really see are headlights and taillights.

ROBBINS: So, how can you tell if somebody's an illegal immigrant?

BERN: Well, fortunately a lot of the times when we make traffic stops out here it's easy to tell, because as soon as you flick on the lights, they stop and everybody bails out. So you've got to kind of go running through the desert and scooping everybody up.

ROBBINS: That's not exactly what the law's sponsor had in mind. Republican Representative Jonathan Paton says the law was intended only for smugglers, not for ordinary illegal immigrants.

JONATHON PATON: I, as someone who's conservative, believes that our laws should be interpreted as they are stated. I'm a strict constructionist in that sense.

ROBBINS: Others are challenging the entire law. Peter Schey is a lawyer and president of the Los Angeles-based Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law. He says only the federal government can pass and enforce immigration laws.

PETER SCHEY: The policy is illegal. They're acting lawlessly at the same time that they are complaining that these immigrants are acting lawlessly.

ARPAIO: Now if the courts say it's a bad law, okay. But if you think I'm going to stop and wait before this thing gets to the Supreme Court and if I'm just going to hang up my gun and badge on this issue, it's not going to happen.

ROBBINS: No one who knows Sheriff Joe Arpaio would expect any other response. He is enormously popular with Maricopa County voters, having won four elections. But so far, he is the only one of Arizona's 15 county sheriffs to implement or even suggest arresting illegal immigrants for smuggling themselves.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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