Arizona Sheriff Defiant as Debate Over Local Immigration Enforcement Program Intensifies

PHOENIX, Arizona — A proposed agreement, scheduled to be voted on today by the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, may offer a glimpse of the federal government’s plans to modify a widely criticized program that authorizes local police to enforce U.S. immigration laws.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks to the press in Phoenix as Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas looks on.  Photo: Valeria Fernandez

Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks to the press in Phoenix as Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas looks on. Photo: Valeria Fernandez

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office has the largest force in the nation authorized under the 287(g) program. Under the existing agreement sheriff’s deputies were able to question people about their immigration status during traffic stops and other types of police investigations. The new contract limits deputies under the command of Sheriff Joe Arpaio to identify undocumented immigrants only within the county jails.

Recently, the Southwest Border Taskforce, an advisory group set up by Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, recommended that the 287(g) program be scaled back, limiting its use to identifying undocumented migrants in jails.

In July, Napolitano announced a review of all 287(g) agreements across the nation. The new contracts would focus on the apprehension of immigrants with a criminal record, she said.

The Department of Homeland Security gave all 66 participating agencies a 90-day-period to review the new contracts and sign them. But DHS hasn’t confirmed whether it will continue working with Arpaio in any fashion.

“We’re still in the signing window process,” said Vincent Picard a spokesperson for Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). “No final decisions have been made.”

DHS has until October 14th –the end of the 90 day review period- to decide whether Arpaio will retain any immigration powers at all. But that hasn’t stopped the sheriff or his critics from renewing their war of words over the treatment of undocumented immigrants.

“They just don’t want this sheriff to investigate and arrest illegal aliens,” said Arpaio during a press conference yesterday.

Arpaio, who has signed the proposed new agreement, also announced he’ll conduct an immigration sweep in two weeks even if he doesn’t have federal powers. The sheriff added that he’ll drive undocumented immigrants to the U.S.-Mexico border if necessary to aid in their deportation.

“I’m going to continue doing everything I’ve been doing. Now I’m free of the federal government,” he said.

Arpaio can still use the state employer sanctions and identity theft laws to conduct raids at workplaces. A state human smuggling law has allowed him to incarcerate migrants who hire smugglers to cross the border.

The proposed agreement may represent an unwelcome change for Arpaio’s agency. But pro-immigrant groups, locally and nationally, argue that the 287(g) program doesn’t need to be mended, it needs to be terminated.

“If DHS continues its relationship with Joe Arpaio, it is making a historic mistake by lending the full force and legitimacy of the federal government to a rogue cop certain to go down in history as a serial violator of civil rights and an enemy of the Latino community,” said Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice a pro-immigrant organization in Washignton D.C in a press release issued Tuesday.

Carlos Garcia a member of the PUENTE movement, a pro-immigrant group, argued that the proposed new agreement is not a victory for immigrants. “Most of the people that get deported are deported because other police departments bring them to Arpaio’s jails,” said Garcia, referring to migrants accused of carrying a false driver license or other false documents. Garcia said Arpaio can still use his power to detain people for minor offenses and bring them to the jail if he suspects they’re undocumented.

With a majority of Republicans, the single Democrat on the Board of Supervisors is Mary Rose Wilcox who has been critical of Arpaio’s immigration crackdown.

“I cannot support it,” said Wilcox who anticipated she will vote against it. “It has been an open door for the abuses of the Latino community.”

Wilcox said she would rather wait for the outcome of a U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation into Arpaio’s practices after allegations of civil rights violations come to light.

The supervisor also stated that there have been a number of lawsuits against the county because of Arpaio’s misuse of his 287(g) powers targeting U.S. citizens. She said she is concerned about the cost of future lawsuits.

On September 28th, the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) sent a letter to President Obama calling for the termination of all 287(g) programs across the country.

“The misuse of the 287(g) program by its current participants has rendered it ineffective and dangerous to community safety,” reads the letter. The document was signed by congresswoman Nydia Velázquez (D-New York), chair of CHC and congressman Luis V. Gutiérrez (D-Illinois)

“Although its stated purpose is to provide law enforcement a tool to pursue criminals, it is our experience that state and local law enforcement officials actually use their expanded and often unchecked powers under the program to target immigrants and persons of color.”

Secretary Napolitano has been a long time supporter of the use of 287(g) programs in jails and prisons. While she was governor of Arizona the state prisons signed an agreement with the federal government. The memorandum allowed jailers to determine the immigration status of prisoners before their release and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) custody.

AboutValeria Fernández
Valeria Fernández is an independent journalist from Uruguay with more than a 14 years experience as a bilingual documentary producer and reporter on Arizona’s immigrant community and the US-Mexico borderlands. She co-directed and produced "Two Americans,” a documentary that parallels the stories of Sheriff Joe Arpaio and a 9-year-old U.S. citizen whose parents were arrested by the sheriff’s deputies that aired in Al Jazeera America. Her work as reporter for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting on the economic and social impacts of a mine spill in Northern Mexico broadcast in PBS, San Diego and won an Arizona Press Club recognition for environmental reporting in 2016. She freelances for a number of print, digital and broadcast media outlets, including Feet in 2 Worlds, CNN Español, Radio Bilingue, PRI's Global Nation, Al Jazeera, and Discovery Spanish.