Last month, a U.S. District Court in Phoenix issued a 142-page decision against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) in Ortega Melendres v. Arpaio. After a three-week trial, the court found that MCSO had an unconstitutional policy of targeting Latinos for traffic stops and of detaining Latinos based on nothing more than a suspicion of being undocumented immigrants.
The court noted that MCSO admitted to using “Hispanic appearance” to determine who was suspected of immigration violations and that Sheriff Arpaio had acted upon racially biased constituent letters in deciding where to conduct “saturation patrols” (known to Maricopa County residents as immigration sweeps). During these “saturation patrols,” over 70 percent of people arrested were Latino—in a county where Latinos make up only a third of the total population.
The Arpaio decision is an enormous victory for everyone in Maricopa County—and particularly for those courageous individuals who stood up for civil rights in the face of racially charged discrimination by the very law enforcement authorities responsible for protecting the community. The court’s ruling established that no one is above the law and put an immediate stop to the MCSO’s policies. The order lifted a shadow of fear that had left a third of the county’s residents unable to go about their daily business without the fear of being pulled over and interrogated about their right to be in their own county, just because they are Latino or look Latino.
But the federal court ruling against MCSO is of great importance far beyond the boundaries of one county in Arizona. What happened in Maricopa County did not, alas, stay in Maricopa County. As the federal court pointed out, the policy of racial profiling and illegal detentions arose from the sheriff’s single-minded focus on arresting undocumented immigrants, as he prioritized immigration enforcement at the local level regardless of the cost for everyone’s civil rights and public safety. Unfortunately, local sheriffs and police chiefs in many parts of the country have adopted similar policies, with similar patterns of constitutional violations as they have become entangled in local immigration enforcement efforts.
Alamance County, North Carolina, is one example. The U.S. Department of Justice has brought a lawsuit against the sheriff there for the same pattern of discrimination against Latinos in traffic stops, again by an agency that has publicly announced a focus on going after undocumented immigrants.
What the Arpaio opinion did not address was how the sheriff’s policies have spread well beyond Maricopa County. The same discriminatory policies were adopted as a matter of state law when the Arizona legislature passed its anti-immigrant SB 1070 law. From there, these policies spread to other states including Alabama. What we have learned from Arizona is that when local officers are forced to go after undocumented immigrants—whether as a matter of a sheriff’s dictate or state law—they will default to using racial profiling and illegal stops in violation of people’s rights.
In fact, prominent police chiefs and sheriffs from around the country urged the Supreme Court to hold Arizona’s SB 1070 unconstitutional because it would be impossible for local law enforcement officers to determine who’s an undocumented immigrant, and that trying to do so would divert critical resources away from the real job of policing our communities. That is exactly what has happened, spurring growing opposition to the troubling entanglements between federal immigration authorities and local and state law enforcement.
Recent polls show that the vast majority of Americans are tired of such unconstitutional and unwise immigration policies and want commonsense immigration reform that puts immigrants who are already making contributions to our communities on the road to U.S. citizenship.
So what does Joe Arpaio have to do with commonsense immigration reform?
As Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado said on the Senate floor right before the passage of the immigration reform bill S. 744, immigration is the federal government’s responsibility. The bipartisan Senate bill is a compromise measure that puts extraordinary resources toward border enforcement but also provides for a road to citizenship and significant improvements to the immigration detention and deportation system.
The House Judiciary Committee’s passage of the so-called “SAFE Act” attempts to open the door to more state and local meddling in immigration matters. The proposal would effectively apply Maricopa County’s unconstitutional example throughout our country, leading to the rampant violation of our most basic American freedoms and leaving communities less safe as distrust and fear of the police takes root.