In Arizona, Our Tax Dollars at Work Stopping Immigration Enforcement

By Jessica M. Vaughan on December 21, 2011

In July, 2005, then-governor of Arizona Janet Napolitano was keen on bringing an innovative public safety tool to her state to help "alleviate the strain" on local law enforcement of dealing with illegal aliens. She wrote to then-Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff, asking his agency to approve a 287(g) agreement for Arizona: "Officers often come into contact with large numbers of UDAs [Undocumented Aliens] during routine traffic or other law enforcement activities." In the letter, she approvingly noted that she would have the assistance of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio in providing bed space for the criminal aliens she anticipated detaining for ICE. The Arizona Department of Corrections soon became the nation's fourth law enforcement agency to participate in the 287(g) program, followed into the program 17 months later by Maricopa County (which includes the city of Phoenix and is home to most of the state's population).

Now, six years later, as DHS Secretary, Napolitano has terminated Arpaio's authority to assist in federal immigration law enforcement efforts, even though that 287(g) program has been a major driver of her agency's success in boosting criminal alien removals and addressing the cross-border crime problems that result from her agency's failure to secure the Arizona border.

Napolitano's cancellation of the Maricopa County 287(g) program follows closely on the heels of a findings letter released on Thursday by the Justice Department, accusing Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies of various discriminatory practices, including racial profiling of Latino drivers. This findings letter is a rather flimsy and unimpressive document, but is entirely characteristic of the many breathless (and fact-free) studies of 287(g) put out over the years by the anti-immigration enforcement grievance groups from which the DOJ apparently drew to staff its Civil Rights division.

What led DOJ investigators to conclude that Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) deputies are illegally targeting Latino drivers? In addition to reporting a few anecdotes, the findings letter stated that their (unidentified) racial-profiling expert found that Latino drivers were four to nine times more likely to be stopped in Maricopa than similarly-situated non-Latino drivers. But the letter presents no context to show why that statistic is significant and evidence of illegal discrimination. For example, what is the ethnic make-up of Maricopa County, and specifically the driving sub-set of the population (licensed and unlicensed)? Are the Latinos ticketed at different rates than non-Latino drivers? How did the expert determine that the stops of Latinos were "pretextual"? How do these arrest statistics compare to other jurisdictions, both in Arizona and other parts of the country? Interestingly, the findings letter says that the expert analyzed only those traffic stops made after the initiation of Maricopa County's immigration enforcement program – so we have no way of knowing if the traffic stop patterns the expert examined are the same or different from what went on before, or if the immigration enforcement had anything to do with traffic stops at all.

But Obama administration officials have no time for such hairsplitting. Although the DOJ findings did not discuss 287(g), or much about immigration enforcement at all, on the same day as they were announced to the press, ICE director John Morton released a letter informing Maricopa County that ICE would withdraw all of its detainees from Maricopa County jails, cease responding to inquiries from MCSO deputies, and restrict MCSO officer's access to Secure Communities technology. All this before the county officials had a chance to even read and respond to the DOJ conclusions, much less offer to correct the problems.

Some of the allegations in the DOJ letter were undeniably troubling. But curtailing immigration law enforcement in Maricopa County is not going to prevent officer misconduct. A more appropriate response to any proven discriminatory practices would be disciplinary or legal action where warranted and better training.

Instead, one is left with the clear impression that the Obama administration is less interested in good policing and more interested in making a show of scolding Maricopa County and also in putting the brakes on enforcement there. As is the case with all 287(g) programs, Maricopa County officers were snapping up way more removable aliens than Napolitano and Morton wanted, and their activity helped create a climate of enforcement that contributed to the departure of thousands of illegal aliens. In 2009, MCSO jail officers put more than 17,000 criminal aliens on the path to removal, handling a significant share of ICE's work (by way of comparison, that year ICE's deportation division officers reported finding 35,000 removable aliens nationwide). These were not all just minor traffic offenders either; according to ICE's own statistics for 287(g) and Secure Communities, Maricopa efforts turned up the same or larger proportions of serious offenders than most other jurisdictions. Yes, most of them turn out to be Hispanic, but the reality is that the vast majority of non-citizen offenders at the federal and local level are Hispanic. As it turns out, 95 percent of the non-citizens in the Arizona corrections system are Hispanic – and that was true on Napolitano's watch too.

As for ICE now refusing to respond to queries from Maricopa officers, that's not only childish and foolhardy, it's almost certainly contrary to ICE's obligations under federal law, and begging for a real lawsuit.

Maricopa County is just the first stop in the administration's campaign to harass localities that dare to find illegal aliens for them. On Monday, DOJ announced the results of another racial profiling investigation, this time against the East Haven, Conn., Police Department. Again, the DOJ's findings letter cited a statistical analysis conducted by unnamed experts who supposedly found that the East Haven police were illegally and intentionally targeting Latinos for traffic enforcement. Ironically (and hypocritically), in this case the DOJ blasted the locals for not having a 287(g) agreement, and because the local cops were exercising – gasp! – discretion in choosing when to call ICE. They called this "haphazard". The investigators noted that some local cops actually had the nerve to call ICE about aliens encountered on traffic stops, apparently assuming that this must have been pretextual and biased, and could not possibly have been because the driver had no identification or admitted to being present illegally, for example. No word yet on how John Morton intends to punish East Haven PD – perhaps by forcing them to use 287(g), since Secure Communities has not been implemented widely in Connecticut.

Look for more of these investigations and efforts to scandalize police practices that expose illegal aliens, which seem aimed to intimidate rather than educate, like the one currently underway in Alamance County, N.C. The administration is no doubt hoping that localities will decide that helping with immigration enforcement is not worth the hassle. A more likely result is that Congress will tire of allocating resources to DOJ and DHS to support these politically-motivated witch hunts that keep law enforcement agencies from doing their job.