A federal judge stepped into the fight over Arizona’s immigration law at the last minute Wednesday, blocking the heart of the measure and defusing a confrontation between police and thousands of activists that had been building for months.
Coming just hours before the law was to take effect, the ruling isn’t the end.
It sets up a lengthy legal battle that could end up before the Supreme Court — ensuring that a law that reignited the immigration debate, inspired similar measures nationwide, created fodder for political campaigns and raised tensions with Mexico will stay in the spotlight.
Lost in the hoopla over Arizona’s immigration law is the fact that state and local authorities for years have been doing their own aggressive crackdowns in the busiest illegal gateway into the country.
Nowhere in the U.S. is local enforcement more present than in metropolitan Phoenix, where Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio routinely carries out sweeps, some in Hispanic neighborhoods, to arrest illegal immigrants. The tactics have made him the undisputed poster boy for local immigration enforcement and the anger that so many authorities feel about the issue.
“It’s my job,” said Arpaio, standing beside a sheriff’s truck that has a number for an immigration hot line written on its side. “I have two state (immigration) laws that I am enforcing. It’s not federal, it’s state.”
A ruling Wednesday by a federal judge put on hold parts of the new law that would have required officers to dig deeper into the fight against illegal immigration. Arizona says it was forced to act because the federal government isn’t doing its job to fight immigration.
The issue led to demonstrations across the country Thursday, including one directed at Arpaio in Phoenix in which protesters beat on the metal door of a jail and chanted, “Sheriff Joe, we are here. We will not live in fear.”
Meanwhile, Gov. Jan Brewer’s lawyers went to court to overturn the judge’s ruling so they can fight back against what the Republican calls an “invasion” of illegal immigrants.
Ever since the main flow of illegal immigrants into the country shifted to Arizona a decade ago, state politicians and local police have been feeling pressure to confront the state’s border woes.
In addition to Arpaio’s crackdowns, other efforts include a steady stream of busts by the state and local police of stash houses where smugglers hide illegal immigrants. The state attorney general has taken a money-wiring company to civil court on allegations that smugglers used their service to move money to Mexico. And a county south of Phoenix has its sheriff’s deputies patrol dangerous smuggling corridors.
The Arizona Legislature have enacted a series of tough-on-immigration measures in recent years that culminated with the law signed by Brewer in April, catapulting the Republican to the national political stage.
But the king of local immigration enforcement is still Arpaio.
Arpaio, a 78-year-old ex-federal drug agent who fashions himself as a modern-day John Wayne, launched his latest sweep Thursday afternoon, sending about 200 sheriff’s deputies and trained volunteers out across metro Phoenix to look for traffic violators who may be here illegally.
Deputy Bob Dalton and volunteer Heath Kowacz spotted a driver with a cracked windshield in a poor Phoenix neighborhood near a busy freeway. Dalton triggered the red and blue police lights and pulled over 28-year-old Alfredo Salas, who was born in Mexico but has lived in Phoenix with a resident alien card since 1993.
Dalton gave him a warning after Salas produced his license and registration and told him to get the windshield fixed.
Salas, a married father of two who installs granite, told The Associated Press that he was treated well but he wondered whether he was pulled over because his truck is a Ford Lobo.
“It’s a Mexican truck so I don’t know if they saw that and said, ‘I wonder if he has papers or not,'” Salas said. “If that’s the case, it kind of gets me upset.”
Sixty percent of the nearly 1,000 people arrested in the sweeps since early 2008 have been illegal immigrants. Thursday’s dragnet led to four arrests, but it wasn’t clear if any of them were illegal immigrants.
Critics say deputies racially profile Hispanics. Arpaio says deputies approach people only when they have probable cause.
“Sheriff Joe Arpaio and some other folks there decided they can make a name for themselves in terms of the intensity of the efforts they’re using,” said Benjamin Johnson, executive director of the pro-immigrant Immigration Policy Center. “There’s no way to deny that. There are a lot of people getting caught up in these efforts.”
The Justice Department launched an investigation of his office nearly 17 months ago over allegations of discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures. Although the department has declined to detail its investigation, Arpaio believes it centers on his sweeps.
Arpaio feels no reservations about continuing to push the sweeps, even after the federal government stripped his power to let 100 deputies make federal immigration arrests.
Unable to make arrests under a federal statute, the sheriff instead relied on a nearly 5-year-old state law that prohibits immigrant smuggling. He has also raided 37 businesses in enforcing a state law that prohibits employers from knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.
“I’m not going to brag,” Arpaio said. “Just look at the record. I’m doing what I feel is right for the people of Maricopa County.”