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.

Arizona’s immigration crackdown principally targets Mexicans – the largest group of illegal immigrants in America today – and features potential state prison terms for violators.

Although advocates of this immigration crackdown deny that race prejudice drives their anti-Mexican campaign, common sense compels the conclusion that Arizona authorities will direct little enforcement against the five-percent of the illegal immigrants in America who come from Canada and Europe.

Despite official denials, Arizona’s immigration crackdown covertly enables police use of ethnic characteristics like facial features or listening to Spanish music as a basis for providing them with the ‘reasonable suspicion’ legally required to lawfully demand documentation from persons to determine if they are in the U.S. legally.

Arizona officials sternly declare their police will not use repugnant racial-profiling when enforcing their crackdown on illegal immigrants.
However, that pledge rings hollow considering the lawsuits filed against police profiling in Arizona.

Police profiling based primarily solely on facial features has ensnared lawful Hispanic residents ranging from a county judge to day laborers.

Since Sheriff Arpaio’s office in downtown Phoenix is a mile from the Arizona Capitol along the same street, anti-profiling declarations by Arizona’s Republican governor Janet Brewer are suspect given her failure to corral Arpaio.

Gov Brewer, whose office is in the Capitol complex, hasn’t cracked down on police brutality by Phoenix city police against Latinos and African-Americans.

In March, Phoenix City Councilman Michael Johnson, an African-American, accused a Phoenix policeman of using excessive force against him. The officer claims Johnson, a retired Phoenix policeman, hit him requiring his subduing and handcuffing the Councilman. The incident occurred while Johnson was talking with a neighbor victimized by a house fire.

Prejudice stains the U.S. history of racial profiling as a law enforcement tool.

That taint crosses America’s partisan divide. President Obama’s immediate Republican and Democratic presidential predecessors both had bad records on
addressing inequities in racial profiling.

Democratic President Bill Clinton repeatedly ignored pleas during his eight-years in the White House to address documented prejudicial Drug War profiling of blacks and Hispanics.

A federal judge, in 1988, castigated the Arkansas State Police for violating his order to end profiling against Hispanics during Clinton’s long-tenure as Arkansas Governor.

Republican President George W. Bush seized on long-standing criticisms from blacks and Hispanics about prejudicial police profiling as a campaign plank, promising to eliminate the practice if elected in 2000.

Yet, following the 9/11/01 attacks, Bush eagerly expanded racial profiling beyond Drug War targeting to include enforcement against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians under his War on Terror.

The United Nation’s Committee On The Elimination Of Racial Discrimination, in March 2008, criticized the Bush Administration for its “increase in racial profiling” against Arabs, Muslims and South Asians.

In August 2005, the national ACLU and several prominent civil rights organizations unsuccessfully called for a federal investigation into an apparent attempt by the Justice Department to bury a government report detailing racial profiling by police against blacks and Latinos.

That 2006 settlement of the racial profiling lawsuit involving the Arizona Highway Patrol occurred during the Arizona gubernatorial tenure of Janet Napolitano, who now serves as Obama’s head of Homeland Security, that vast federal bureaucracy that includes immigration enforcement.

Those criticizing comparisons of anti-Mexican sentiment in Arizona today with segregationist sentiment in Alabama during 1960s-era civil rights struggles as malicious exaggeration overlook a salient historic fact.

During America’s Civil War, the then Territory of Arizona joined the Confederacy. Alabama was a core Confederate “state.”

The March 1861 Arizona Ordinance of Secession declared that the territory
seized from Mexico during an 1848 war, “…naturally belongs to the Confederate States of America…by ties of common interest and common cause.”

It’s as wrong of course to broad-brush a majority of white Arizonans as bigots as it is to suspect persons of Mexican ancestry of being unlawful aliens.

Illegal immigration may cause some problems in America but unleashing police to maraud against non-whites is not the solution.

Violating the rights of lawful Arizona citizens of Hispanic ancestry to ferret out undocumented immigrants is wrong.

Curiously, Arizona ranks only sixth on the list of states with the largest undocumented immigrant populations, having far less in sheer numbers than list topping California and Texas.

President Obama is right calling for immigration reform at the federal not state levels – a call Republicans and many Democrats on Capitol Hill resist.