Skip to content Skip to footer

Police Across Arizona See Dangers of New Law

It’s not every day in Arizona that the police are so eager not to do their job. Yet the state’s latest anti-immigrant crack down has evoked protests from cops across the state, who fear that a new measure to criminalize undocumented immigrants will only make it harder to deal with local crime.

It’s not every day in Arizona that the police are so eager not to do their job. Yet the state’s latest anti-immigrant crack down has evoked protests from cops across the state, who fear that a new measure to criminalize undocumented immigrants will only make it harder to deal with local crime.

Broad opposition to the law, SB 1070, has produced some of the immigration debate’s strangest bedfellows: civil rights advocates have aligned with police chiefs to warn of the consequences of entangling local police in federal immigration policy. And law enforcement officials nationwide have warned that the growing trend of localizing immigration enforcement undermines years of progress in establishing “community policing” techniques that are believed effective in preventing crime.

Shortly before Gov. Jan Brewer signed the bill, the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police warned in a statement that the policy “will negatively affect the ability of law enforcement agencies across the state to fulfill their many responsibilities in a timely manner.” Concerned about new liabilities created by the legislation (one provision enables local citizens to sue if they believe police are not enforcing immigration law strictly enough), the organization called on Congress “to begin the process of comprehensively addressing the immigration issue to provide solutions that are fair, logical, and equitable.”

The law also drew the ire of Santa Cruz County Sheriff’s Office. “I have told people: ‘Don’t let this happen, because you will just be doing the federal government’s job,” Sheriff Estrada told the Arizona County Star. He added, “I’m disappointed because they are painting all illegal immigrants with a broad brush… Everybody is bad; everybody is harmful; everybody is hurting the economy. That is not necessarily true.”

A primary concern is that co-opting local police into a broken immigration-enforcement system would further strain relations between police and immigrant communities. “Now you have a scenario where you have a state law that mandates that you take primary enforcement on immigration issues, and it tells you that if you don’t, anybody can sue you for your failure to do so,” said Chief George Gascón of the San Francisco Police, who previously headed the police force of Mesa County, Arizona. “And you can see how that’s going to really create further pressure in what is already a very politically charged, very emotional situation.”

As anti-immigrant hostility has escalated in recent years, some police departments have managed to resist pressure to enforce civil immigration law, citing basic principles of community policing and the practical challenges of interacting daily with immigrants. At a House hearing last year, Chief J. Thomas Manger of the Montgomery County Police Department in Maryland, testified on behalf of the national law enforcement association Major Cities Chiefs. “Without assurances that contact with the police would not result in purely civil immigration-enforcement action,” Manger warned, “the hard-won trust, communication and cooperation from the immigrant community would disappear.”

David Harris, a professor of law at the University of Pittsburgh, told ColorLines there is consensus in law enforcement that confronting crime requires cooperation from all local stakeholders, across racial and ethnic lines.

Though clearly not every police department fully embraces community policing principles, Harris said that in general, “When you have police and the community working together, that’s the only way that you’re going to get not just the force of law enforcement, but the support and information that can only come from people on the ground, where they live and where they work.”

Michele Waslin, a policy analyst with the Washington, D.C.-based Immigration Policy Center, said the climate of fear erodes safety across the entire community. Since a typical immigrant household may include people with and without a green card, along with the native-born, she said, “even legal immigrants and citizens are afraid of reporting crimes if they think that it’s going to get other people in their household into trouble with the police. So it’s important to know it goes beyond just the undocumented community.”

Harris hopes Arizona’s nativist backlash spurs national reform in Congress. “Whatever else you want to say about illegal immigration,” he said, “responsible public officials should take what law enforcement is telling them and make that the basis for more responsible and tempered immigration action.”

SB1070 mirrors the local-federal “partnerships” that Homeland Security has promoted under both the Bush and Obama administrations in the post-9/11 era. Thanks to the militant immigration raids carried out by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the state has become ground zero for the infamous 287(g) program, which enables police departments to team up with ICE to conduct local immigration sweeps. Despite sparking national protests and civil rights litigation, Arpaio has defended his aggressive tactics as a complement to federal measures to round up and deport undocumented workers.

Still, Arpaio’s anti-immigrant crusade doesn’t necessarily reflect a nationwide pattern. About 50 states and cities have barred police from inquiring about a person’s immigration status without an arrest, according to the Immigration Policy Center. Police departments in diverse cities like Austin and New York City have launched outreach projects to encourage immigrants to report crimes and aid investigations, while alleviating fears that police would target community members based on their legal status.

Meanwhile, federal data suggest that mixing police duties with immigration law doesn’t pay off in terms of public safety. ICE recently reported that the majority of immigrant detainees are generally “characterized as low custody, or having a low propensity for violence,” meaning that many didn’t have to be incarcerated at all.

In fact, immigrants are acutely vulnerable to being victims of crime. According to a recent study on several North Carolina counties participating in 287(g), despite claims that the initiative would target dangerous criminals, “Underreporting of crime and the increased victimization of immigrants negatively impact public safety.”

From a fiscal standpoint, many police chiefs say they simply lack the capacity to serve as ICE’s local foot soldiers. In a 2008 analysis of Maricopa County’s implementation of 287(g), the conservative Goldwater Institute criticized the sheriff’s office for wasting funds, provoking costly lawsuits, and fixating on “misplaced priorities that have diverted it from its mission.”

While the problems with SB1070 go far beyond budgets and logistics, the unease in the law-enforcement community underscores the disconnect between state politicians’ anti-immigrant chest-beating and the realities of policing in marginalized communities. While lawmakers approved the legislation under the banner of restoring “rule of law,” both police and community advocates fear the real security threat is that immigrants are being robbed of their constitutional rights.

The growing polarization between law enforcement and restrictionist lawmakers, Gascon said, reveals that the passage of SB1070 “is clearly a politically driven agenda, and one that is driven by people that are taking advantage of the vacuum that the federal government has left in this area.”

Reprinted with permission of ColorLines magazine,

We need your help to propel Truthout into the new year

As we look toward the new year, we’re well aware of the obstacles that lie in the path to justice. But here at Truthout, we are encouraged and emboldened by the courage of people worldwide working to move us all forward — people like you.

If you haven’t yet made your end-of-year donation to support our work, this is the perfect moment to do so: Our year-end fundraising drive is happening now, and we must raise $150,000 by the end of December.

Will you stand up for truly independent, honest journalism by making a contribution in the amount that’s right for you? It only takes a few seconds to donate by card, Apple Pay, Google Pay, PayPal, or Venmo — we even accept donations of cryptocurrency and stock! Just click the red button below.