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Prejudice Pervades Arizona's Immigration Crackdown

Arizona in 2010 is the new Alabama.

Equating anti-Mexican sentiment in Arizona today with segregationist sentiment in Alabama during 1960s-era civil rights struggles is becoming commonplace in the wake of recently adopted Arizona legislation authorizing police to crack down on illegal immigrants.

However, Dan Pochoda, Legal Director of the ACLU in Arizona, saw this parallel long before the recent uproar over targeting Mexicans for intensified immigration enforcement in that Southwest border state.

Pochoda is one of the lawyers pressing a class action federal lawsuit charging the Sheriff’s Department in Maricopa County – the area that includes the state capital of Phoenix – with racial profiling of Mexicans during high-profile immigration sweeps through Latino communities.

“Defendants' pattern and practice of racial profiling goes beyond these sweeps to include widespread, day-to-day targeting and mistreatment of persons who appear to be Latino,” states one document in that lawsuit filed in mid-2008.

Joe Arpaio, the controversial and colorful Maricopa County Sheriff – noted for making prisoners wear pink underwear and housing them under tents in searing desert sun – proudly defends using physical appearance alone as the trigger for immigration enforcement.

Initial plaintiffs in that federal lawsuit included persons who are lawful U.S. citizens but who were stopped, detained, interrogated or searched during Arpaio’s sweeps.

Sheriff Arapaio

Those sweeps by Maricopa County deputies, over a dozen since early 2008, include the use of volunteer ‘posse’ members who are untrained yet carry guns, Pochoda said. Posse members range from elderly retirees to motorcyclists who portray themselves as “patriots” protecting America.

“Arpaio was aware of the anti-immigration reputation of the American Freedom Riders [motorcycle group] and the public use of racial epithets by their members,” states a charge in that lawsuit.

Earlier this year, the federal judge handling this lawsuit announced he would impose sanctions on the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department for destroying evidence in that case.

That destruction included deleting emails about patrols plus throwing away and/or shredding documentation about traffic stops made during the sweeps.

“The Sheriff’s Office acknowledged not maintaining records as they should,” the ACLU’s Pochoda noted.

“They conveniently lost stat sheets that enable us to document the nature of traffic stops to show the stops were pretextual stops based on race. Although the U.S. Supreme Court allows police to make stops, if the main motivation is racial they can’t initiate the stop.”

Sheriff Department lawyers defended the evidence destruction as honest errors arising from top Sheriff officials not informing deputies to preserve the documentation.

Pochoda said that a “mountain of emails” that Sheriff’s officials claimed had been destroyed last year were recently discovered by other Maricopa County officials and are now being reviewed for release to the legal team in that lawsuit.

In 2006, Pochoda said, the Arizona Highway Patrol entered into a settlement to stop racially profiling Latinos and African-Americans as part of anti-drug enforcement efforts.

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