When Metro Phoenix Was Out of Control

Immigration Enforcement in Maricopa County and Arizona

By Andrew R. Arthur on August 29, 2017

On Friday, August 25, 2017, President Trump pardoned former Maricopa County (Ariz.) Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who had been convicted of criminal contempt by U.S. District Court Judge Susan Bolton in Arizona on July 31, 2017. As the Washington Post described the matter:

The case that led to former Sheriff Joe Arpaio's criminal conviction last month, and his pardon by President Trump on Friday night, began in 2007 with a traffic stop in Maricopa County, Ariz., and the wrongful nine-hour detention of a Mexican man holding a valid tourist's visa. The man sued Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, alleging racial profiling by deputies working for the most visible sheriff in America in a case that evolved into a class action suit for all Latino motorists in Maricopa County.

After four years of depositions and hearings and motions, a federal judge in Phoenix entered a preliminary injunction against Arpaio and the sheriff's office, noting that "states do not have the inherent authority to enforce the civil provisions of federal immigration law." He ordered Arpaio to stop detaining anyone not suspected of a state or federal crime — simply being in the United States illegally is not a crime, only a civil violation.

That was in December 2011. And that's when Arpaio's defiance of the court began. Over the next five years, two federal judges found that Arpaio wasn't abiding by the injunction, was regularly telling the news media he wouldn't abide by it, continued to have deputies make immigration-based stops and even made "multiple intentional misstatements of fact under oath," one judge wrote. U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow wrote last year that Arpaio made false statements about his department "in an attempt to obstruct any inquiry into their further wrongdoing or negligence," and that Arpaio and his chief deputy "have a history of obfuscation and subversion of this Court's orders that is as old as this case and did not stop after they themselves became the subjects of civil contempt."

So after 21 days of hearings in 2015, Snow found Arpaio in civil contempt of court. But the judge felt that Arpaio still had no interest in complying with his orders to provide information on immigration enforcement or to stop making immigration arrests. So last year Snow took the extraordinary step of referring the sitting sheriff of Maricopa County to another judge for a charge of criminal contempt of court, with a possible six-month jail sentence. (Arpaio was defeated for reelection in November.)

Over Arpaio's objection, that judge — U.S. District Judge Susan R. Bolton — heard the case herself, without a jury. (An appeal on that issue was pending before the U.S. Supreme Court when Trump issued his pardon.) Bolton found Arpaio guilty, citing his numerous statements to the news media and his actions in continuing to detain Latino motorists. Despite his knowledge of injunctions ordering him to stop immigration enforcement, Bolton concluded, Arpaio "broadcast to the world and to his subordinates that he would and they should continue 'what he had always been doing.' " She set his sentencing for Oct. 5, and he faced up to six months in jail.

Sheriff Arpaio's conviction followed the Supreme Court's June 2012 decision in Arizona v. United States, in which the Court held that much of Arizona Senate Bill 1070, a law passed by the state to address illegal immigration, was preempted by federal law. That law, as amended by companion legislation:

[P]rohibit[ed] state and local law enforcement from restricting the enforcement of federal immigration laws;

[R]equire[d] law enforcement, in making a lawful stop, detention, or arrest for another law, to make a reasonable attempt to determine the person's immigration status where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is not lawfully present in the country;

[C]reate[d] a new misdemeanor offense for the willful failure to complete or carry an immigrant registration document under certain circumstances;

[A]uthorize[d] a peace officer involved in enforcement related to human smuggling to lawfully stop anyone in a motor vehicle on reasonable suspicion that the person is violating a civil traffic law;

[C]reate[d] misdemeanor offenses (or felonies if 10 or more illegal immigrants are involved) for unlawfully transporting or concealing an illegal immigrant or encouraging one to enter or remain in the country illegally;

[A]uthorize[d] a peace officer to arrest a person without a warrant on probable cause that the person has committed a public offense that makes the person removable from the country;

[R]equire[d] employers to keep employee eligibility records for three years or the duration of employment, whichever is longer; [and]

[A]llowe[d] employers to raise an affirmative defense of entrapment to a charge of knowingly or intentionally employing unauthorized immigrants.

The national emphasis on border enforcement has shifted in recent years to the Rio Grande Valley (RGV), as the flow of aliens entering illegally has shifted there. It is important, however, to recall the conditions as they existed in Arizona in the last decade when considering the actions of the Arizona legislature and Sheriff Arpaio as they related to immigration enforcement.

The Border Patrol's Tucson Sector "covers most of the State of Arizona from the New Mexico State line to the Yuma County line", including 262 border miles. In FY 2000, the Tucson Sector of the Border Patrol was responsible for more than 37 percent of all apprehensions along the Southwest border, 616,346 aliens, and Yuma Sector was responsible for an additional 108,747 apprehensions. By contrast, that year, the RGV Sector Border Patrol made 133,243 apprehensions, and San Diego Sector made 151,681. Four years later, in FY 2004, Tucson Sector made 491,771 apprehensions, or more than 43 percent of all apprehensions along the Southwest border. By FY 2010, more than 47 percent of all Southwest Border apprehensions (212,202) were in the Tucson Sector, which were also almost 46 percent of all Border Patrol apprehensions. Only in FY 2013 did RGV overtake Tucson Sector in apprehensions.

Even these statistics do not tell the whole story, however. So-called drop-houses proliferated in Phoenix following the turn of the millennium. As the Arizona Department of Public Safety (DPS) defines them:

Drop houses are often an intermediary point in the smuggling of immigrants who are not legally permitted to enter the United States. The drop houses are usually rented properties where coyotes, or human smugglers, stash immigrants while awaiting payments. These properties can range from actual houses or apartments and are not limited to any one geographic area of the state.


Often, the immigrants are being held against their will and have been misled by the coyotes. Treatment of immigrants is generally very poor which may include food, water and medicine being withheld to the point of death. In addition, any children and infants are generally lacking the basics such as baby formula or appropriate food.

The violent nature of the criminal operations that utilize drop houses, and their total disregard for human life, make them a threat not only to the immigrants they exploit, but also to the communities in which they operate. As a result, if human smugglers are operating in your neighborhood, you and your family could be at risk.

In October 2007, Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies raided a so-called "drop-house" for illegal aliens in Phoenix, taking 54 people into custody, "including four children and seven suspected smugglers." According to press reports, in the house, "[o]ne man's head had been wrapped in a plastic bag and submerged in a waste-filled toilet," and that victim's "pregnant wife was severely beaten."

This was not an isolated incident. In February 2011, 55 illegal aliens (including two smugglers) were arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents in Phoenix, and in March 2010, "Maricopa County Sheriff's Office uncovered a drop house ... in west Phoenix where deputies arrested four human smugglers and found 36 immigrants held hostage in deplorable conditions." In fact, in FY 2008, "3,221 illegal immigrants [were] found in 186 drop[]houses."

In August 2010, the Village Voice described Phoenix as "America's Kidnapping Capital", and detailed the torture, rape, and abuse of illegal aliens at the hands of their smugglers. As that article stated:

Kidnappers kick and punch hostages, beat them with baseball bats, submerge them in bathtubs and electrically shock them, burn their flesh with blowtorches, smash their fingers with bricks, slice their bodies with butcher knives, shoot them in their arms and legs, and cut open their backs with wire-cutters. The kidnappers usually video-tape the sexual humiliation and violence and send the images to family members if ransoms aren't paid.

The torture house is one of several — usually three — dwellings where smuggled immigrants are stashed. Horrible conditions intensify after the first house, which some victims describe as almost welcoming.


Once some pollos [smuggled aliens] arrive at the second house, no matter which band of coyotes is holding them, they are often forced to strip naked and pose in sexually humiliating positions while their captors take pictures. Some may be made to work off their debts by becoming guards, drivers, or maids in a smuggling organization.

Violence houses are the last stop for most pollos.

Drop houses were once so common in Phoenix that it was news in December 2012 that the number of such houses was falling. As Sheriff Arpaio stated at that time, however, he believed that the decrease was more a function of changed tactics by smugglers, who were "bypassing the Phoenix area" and heading directly to other cities.

Nor was it simply a question of smugglers and pollos in Phoenix at the time. As the Village Voice explained: "Sometimes, pollos are kidnapped at gunpoint by bajadores from one drop house and taken to another operated by a rival organization, which then takes over extorting the captives."

Further, the bloodshed associated with smuggling also spilled into the streets. On November 4, 2003, "[a] blazing shootout" erupted in Casa Grande, Ariz., that left four dead and five wounded. Press reports stated that "[a]uthorities believe the shooters were retaliating after their immigrant load was stolen earlier in the southern part of Pinal County." That incident:

[B]egan about 8:30 a.m. when a gray van pulled alongside a green Ford Explorer and a brown Ford pickup truck as the vehicles headed west toward Phoenix. ... Occupants of the van started shooting at people in the other two vehicles. ...

[T]he pickup, packed with 18 people, was struck at least 28 times by gunfire and veered off the freeway's right side and stopped.

The pickup's driver and three passengers, all men, were killed by gunfire.

A man driving the Explorer and a woman passenger were wounded. The two got out when the sport utility vehicle stopped near the pickup or they were dumped there by another occupant.

The Explorer, with four people still in it, continued on until it was stopped by a DPS officer and a bureau agent on I-10 in the Casa Grande area.

The van, with four men in it, was driven on until its driver got off the interstate. The van had a flat tire.

In addition to those in the two vehicles, "[t]he aftermath of the I-10 shooting left several motorists injured, including Northwest Fire District Operations Chief Randy Karrer, whose vehicle was rear-ended by a tractor-trailer rig as traffic backed up on the freeway after the shootings."

The violence flourished even though ICE made efforts to stem it. In November 2003, the White House announced "Operation ICE Storm", which it described as "an unprecedented multi-agency initiative led by ... [ICE] to combat human smuggling and the violence it has generated in Arizona and nationwide." The White House press release stated:

Court statistics show that, from January through October, Phoenix experienced 216 homicides, compared to 149 for the same period last year, a 45 percent increase. Over the last few years, there has also been a significant number of incidents involving extortion, kidnapping, and home invasions. In 2002-2003, there were 623 such incidents, 75 percent of which were the result of human smuggling or related activity.

Among the "12 federal, state, and local agencies participating in ICE Storm" were the Maricopa County Attorney's Office and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.

ICE's actual reaction to the violence in the greater Phoenix area was criticized, however. As the Phoenix New Times reported in November 2006:

The federal government's response to illegal immigration in Arizona — the virtual gateway into the United States for illegal aliens — is to man the Phoenix ICE office with about 60 agents, roughly the same number found in the agency's Honolulu or Denver bureaus.

In fact, news reports suggested that the ineffectiveness of the federal response was in part to blame for the suicide of the first ICE acting chief in Phoenix, Thomas DeRouchey, in March 2004. As the East Valley Tribune reported:

DeRouchey had an ongoing frustration with the agency and his supervisors, said retired ICE agent Alma Goss. DeRouchey called her a couple of days before his death and said he was "tired" of the lack of support the Phoenix agency received. He said he had recently complained to a top ICE official that the agency needed to get its act together, Goss said.

Six months before DeRouchey's death, ICE launched "Operation ICE Storm," a new effort to bust up immigrant smuggling gangs that made Arizona the No. 1 state for illegal border crossings. At the time, officials said ICE Storm would add about 50 temporary agents to the Phoenix bureau, which staffed the same number of full-time agents.

DeRouchey had "asked for a lot of personnel," Goss said. "What he got was maybe half of what he requested."

Interestingly, then-Arizona Governor (and future Obama administration Secretary of Homeland Security) Janet Napolitano and Sheriff Arpaio wrote to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff in 2006 "complaining about a top federal immigration official in Phoenix", according to the Phoenix Business Journal. That letter reportedly stated, in part:

ICE cooperation has been so lacking that the agency even has refused to pick up and deport undocumented immigrants who have been convicted under Arizona's human smuggling statute. Instead, Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies must drive the arrestees to the border to be turned over to Border Patrol — a significant waste of time and taxpayer dollars.

Illegal alien apprehensions in the Tucson Sector in FY 2016 were just more than one-tenth what they had been in FY 2000. As Tucson.com explains:

The picture of the southern border has changed drastically in recent years. Tucson is no longer the busiest sector in the country and Yuma's apprehensions are far below the more than 100,000 arrests seen in the mid-2000s.

As the number of Mexicans coming north declined and the number of people from other countries, primarily Central America, went up, human traffic shifted east to Texas — particularly the Rio Grande Valley, which is the shortest route from countries such as Guatemala, Honduras and El Salvador.

Racial profiling is poor policing, and to the degree that it plays a role in any arrest, it is to be condemned. When considering the role that the State of Arizona, and the former Maricopa County Sheriff, took, or attempted to take, to enforce the immigration laws, however, it is important to remember the massive levels of alien smuggling, and its attendant violence, that racked the Valley of the Sun in the not-so-distant past.