For years, civil rights groups in the Phoenix area have been battling a sheriff who made it his goal to arrest as many people on immigration violations as he could, even as it came at the cost of solving more serious crimes.
Now those same groups are preparing for what they expect will be a flood of new problems as cops throughout the state jump into the fray following Monday’s Supreme Court ruling that gave them a green light to enforce one of the toughest parts of Arizona’s immigration law, SB1070.
“Life is going to be worse for the immigrant community in Arizona,” civil rights organizer Carlos Garcia told TPM after the ruling. “I think now what’s been happening here in Maricopa County is only going to multiply.”
Sheriff Joe Arpaio has become a scourge of the immigrant community in recent years, bragging that he’s responsible for sending tens of thousands of illegal immigrants to federal authorities for deportation. He’s earned a reputation for commanding what by all accounts has become a local immigration force.
On Monday, Arpaio boasted that the Supreme Court’s decision would likely do little to change the way his agency handles enforcement. “We’ve been doing it anyway for four years,” he told Phoenix television station KNXV.
But the sheriff, whose endorsement was courted this year by nearly every major Republican candidate for president, has also been plagued with problems since turning his attention toward immigration.
A Pulitzer Prize-winning series published in 2008 by the East Valley Tribune newspaper found that his agency’s arrest rates across the board dropped to as low as 2.5 percent even as his spending on immigration skyrocketed. Investigations of hundreds of violent crimes, including the sexual assaults of children, were botched in the process.
The sheriff has also been plagued with lawsuits accusing him and his men of widespread civil rights violations. The best known of them, filed last month by the Justice Department, accuses the sheriff’s office of a pattern of discrimination against Latinos in the jails on the streets.
With the new ruling, civil rights groups fear those same types of problems could spread throughout Arizona and beyond, as local police take on what is essentially an international issue. States like Alabama and Georgia have already passed their own measures similar to Arizona’s.
The American Civil Liberties Union announced on Monday it had already put together a “war chest” of more than $8.7 million to fight civil rights problems it expects to see as other agencies take Arpaio’s lead.
Many immigrants who came to the United States illegally or whose visitation permits have expired hope their situations never end up in a court.
But others, like Angel Alvarez, 23, are not that lucky. His mother brought him to the United States from Mexico when he was a year old. He spent most of his life in Arizona. He’s the type of young immigrant that President Obama recently described as American in “every way, except on paper.”
But Alvarez told TPM his life recently took an unexpected turn when while he was living in New Mexico earlier this year and got pulled over on a traffic stop. A friend in the car had an open container of alcohol, he said, and so they were both detained that night. When an officer discovered Alvarez’s only identification was a Mexican consular card, he was sent to federal immigration authorities and is currently fighting deportation.
Now out on bond and back in Arizona with a temporary travel permit, Alvarez is volunteering with a group called Puente that organizes and educates immigrants about their civil rights. The Supreme Court’s ruling, he said, was a blow.
“I just don’t think it’s fair,” Alvarez said. “I think the police should focus on what they focus on now, like robberies or gangs or crimes that people do.”
Alvarez is just one part of a huge population that laws like Arizona’s were designed to target. Recent estimates by the Pew Hispanic Center said there were 400,000 immigrants living in Arizona without the proper documents and about 11.2 million nationwide.
Phoenix immigrant rights activist Salvador Reza said he and his fellow organizers have already been holdings meetings where they educate between 50 and 100 people a week about their rights and discuss whether certain neighborhoods are being targeted. He said the importance of those types of meetings should be all the more clear now.
Reza has long been a foe of Arpaio’s and was cited in the Justice Department’s civil rights lawsuit against the sheriff. He was twice arrested by Arpaio’s deputies. Justice Department lawyers allege one of those times was in blatant retaliation for simply opposing the sheriff.
He said some people might think that Monday’s ruling was a victory for immigrants because so much of Arizona’s law was struck down. But he warned that would be a mistake
“For the community, the people that are everyday on the streets and trying to go to work, trying to feed their families, this is not a victory,” Reza said. “This is more of the same and probably more intense than it used to be.”
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com