ICE Program Under Fire | The Nation


ICE Program Under Fire

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"I wouldn't call the police if a crime was committed against me," one undocumented woman from Phoenix told me one night over dinner. Her family moved from Mexico City to Phoenix when she was 1. She is now 22 and applying for PhD programs; she wants to study the intersection of art and politics. "Instead of feeling like the victim, I'd be made to feel like a criminal." Her friend, who is getting her master's in school administration and is also undocumented, nodded. "If I saw a car crash, before I'd be the first person to call," the friend said. "Now, I'd rather not." I asked whether it was Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, they were afraid of, or if it was all the police agencies in the area. "All of them," they both answered.

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Jessica Weisberg
Jessica Weisberg
Jessica Weisberg has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, The New Yorker, The American Prospect and many...

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Arpaio would consider it a personal failing if you hadn't heard of him before. Since 1992, when he was first elected sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix as well as 60 percent of Arizona's population, he has routinely staged newsmaking stunts, like dressing his inmates in black-and-white striped uniforms and requiring that they work on chain gangs in the scalding Phoenix heat. He has a five-person media relations team and has appeared on Colbert Report and Late Night with Conan O'Brien. While media coverage tends to be quite negative, it seems to have only secured Arpaio's standing as a local hero--he was re-elected for a fifth term last November in a landslide vote.

In 2007 Arpaio was granted 287(g) authority and began conducting raids, or "crime suppression sweeps," as he calls them, in Hispanic neighborhoods throughout the county. His deputies swarm an area and pull people over for ludicrous offenses--"improper use of horn," for instance--as a pretext for checking immigration status.

There are two types of 287(g) contracts: one for task force officers, who patrol the streets, and another for detention officers. Arpaio's 287(g) contract included both of these certifications and deputized more than 160 officers, the most of any agency in the country. His office claims that it has processed more than 28,000 people for deportation. "We are quickly becoming a full-fledged anti-illegal immigration agency," Arpaio has said. He stops people constantly. "If you are of Mexican-American heritage, if you have brown skin, there is nothing you can do not to be stopped," said Mary Rose Wilcox, the only Hispanic member of the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. In the soup kitchen in Nogales, Mexico, I spoke to two men who were picked up by Arpaio's deputies while walking down the street. One of the men had two children, both US citizens, and another on the way.

The line between police jurisdictions is fuzzy one: there are at least twenty-five law enforcement agencies in Maricopa County, all of which utilize the county jail. In March a member of the Phoenix Police arrested a 46-year-old woman named Maria del Carmen García Martínez while she was posting signs for a yard sale. She was charged with a forged ID, and the police officer brought Martínez to the county jail where Arpaio's jail guards ran her through the system and discovered she was undocumented. Martínez told the local news that jailers tried to force her to approve a "voluntary departure" form, by which a person waives her rights to appear before an immigration judge and is deported immediately. She refused, although this meant she would be held in jail indefinitely, through a "civil detainer," until a judge looked at her case. This is a costly choice for the jail--although Arpaio is prideful of the fact that he spends less than 60 cents a day to feed each inmate--and the jailers started to wrestle Martínez into fingerprinting the form and broke her arm in the process. (She was then transferred to ICE, who released her from custody so she could appear before an immigration judge. Her case is pending.)

Undocumented immigrants are not entitled to an attorney, and according to Antonio Bustamante, a Phoenix defense lawyer, many who have entered the county jail have been coerced into signing a voluntary departure form. "People who have tried to withhold information--which is a perfect right of the Fourteenth Amendment of the Constitution--they are screamed at, yelled at, some are hit," Bustamante said. (One of Arpaio's spokesmen says, "No one is forced to sign anything" and that there's "no proof" of Martínez's being injured while in custody.) Thousands of lawsuits and legal claims have been filed against Arpaio's office alleging abuse in his jails.

Several Arizona law enforcement agencies have followed Arpaio's lead: in July the sheriff of Pinal County, which neighbors Maricopa, assisted Sheriff Arpaio in the raid of several cities in the eastern outskirts of Phoenix. The Pinal County Sheriff's Office recently received 287(g) authority and considered the operation to be a "training exercise." Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix police union, considers Arpaio and deputies to be the hallmark of "beautiful policing." Spencer, who has spiky hair and a well-groomed mustache, refers to undocumented immigrants as "illegals." When we were discussing why so many people from Mexico continued to cross the border, the union's secretary, a blond, barrel-chested man, said, "Because Mexicans don't have the testicular fortitude to take care of their own country."

In spring 2008 the Phoenix Police Department, at the union's urging, rewrote its immigration policy to allow officers greater discretion in immigration enforcement. Previously, city officers were forbidden from reporting civil, nonviolent immigration cases to ICE. Silverio Ontiveros, who retired from the Phoenix police in December, fears that the arrangement could impair the department's relationship with the city's immigrant population. "We have been very, very fortunate that the citizens of Phoenix support its police department. But you can easily lose that."

Hispanics account for 34 percent of Phoenix's population and 60 percent of its homicide victims, and city officials worry that individuals who could potentially serve as witnesses are not coming forward for fear they might be deported. Policemen also fear that immigrant women aren't reporting cases of domestic violence. Both the Major Cities Chiefs Association and the Police Foundation have opposed 287(g), concluding that the program marginalizes the undocumented population, and legal immigrants by association. David Harris, a law professor at the University of Pittsburg, believes that "any police agency in a city or town with an Hispanic population of any size understands that being involved in immigration is the last thing they want." The incentive, Harris believes, is a political one. Indeed, more than two-thirds of 287(g) contracts are with sheriffs who, unlike police chiefs, are elected officials and might earn votes with promises of an iron-fisted approach to immigration enforcement.

As governor, Napolitano was unmoved by these concerns. In 2007 she brokered a 287(g) contract for the Arizona state police, despite the fact that the agency had recently settled a lawsuit from the ACLU that had alleged that its officers were racially profiling during highway stops. For years she's maintained a chummy relationship with Sheriff Arpaio. When she ran for governor in 2002, Arpaio filmed a last-minute campaign commercial that helped her eke out a victory. In 2006 she and Arpaio wrote a letter to Michael Chertoff, then secretary of Homeland Security, complaining that Arizona ICE officials' lack of cooperation was undermining Arpaio's ability to enforce immigration laws. While Phil Gordon, the mayor of Phoenix, and other local officials denounced Arpaio's discriminatory practices, Napolitano, according to the New York Times, "remained largely silent on the civil rights concerns raised in the Hispanic community."

It was revealed on October 6 that Arpaio's new agreement with the Department of Homeland Security would only include detention authority. Arpaio signed the contract but was enraged by the decision, swearing that he would continue to perform crime suppression sweeps anyway. (Arpaio and others claim that Bybee's memo permits police organizations to enforce all immigration laws, even without 287(g) authority.) That same day, the Department of Homeland Security announced a "series of sweeping changes" to the immigration detention system.

"If Secretary Napolitano is serious in her announcement today that she will reform detention conditions," said Salvador Reza, a Phoenix-based activist, "the first step she should take is the immediate termination of Joe Arpaio's 287(g) agreement." ICE authorization of the new agreement is pending. A spokesperson from the Department of Homeland Security would not comment on the status of Arpaio's agreement, insisting that no additional information about the program would be released until after October 14.

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