Dispatches from Phoenix: Borderline Laws

By Guest Columnist Mar 11, 2009

by Valéria Fernandez (click to enlarge DOJ letter to Arpaio, sent 03/10/09) It’s really good news that the Department of Justice (DOJ) launched a long overdue investigation into Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s use of immigration powers. In a letter sent Tuesday, officials from the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division notified Arpaio that they initiated an investigation on whether deputies are engaging in "patterns or practices of discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures." But it might not be enough to stop him, as long as the Arizona State Legislature continues to devise new ways to criminalize immigrants. And governor Jan Brewer throws money at it. Sit in any courtroom at the Maricopa County Superior Court and you’ll see a new brand of justice. Weekly, dozens and sometimes hundreds of immigrants are tried in Arizona just “for being illegal” in the words of a judge. This has been happening for at least 3 years, with no end in sight. It’s the result of a combination of state laws in Arizona that have the consequence of criminalizing undocumented immigrants. At the forefront of this effort is Sheriff Arpaio and the county’s prosecutor, Andrew Thomas. They have found ways to charge immigrants that use the services of a smuggler with conspiring to their own smuggling. They have used a state law created to go after employers that hire undocumented labor against the workers. Different courts have upheld their use of these laws. And Arpaio himself has vowed to continue to use them if the feds take away from him the power to enforce immigration laws under an agreement known as 287(g). There’s also a bill in the works that would charge undocumented immigrants with “trespassing” into the state’s land. Immigration reform needs to take place so Maricopa County can stop applying it’s own brand of justice. Let’s hope the DOJ investigation will be the catalyst of that. Valéria Fernandez is a reporter in Phoenix, Arizona.