Analysis suggests few serious offenders caught since 2008
by JJ Hensley - Jun. 21, 2010 12:00 AM
The Arizona Republic
Sheriff Joe Arpaio's announcement that he will mark the dawn of Arizona's new immigration law next month with a crime-suppression operation should catch nobody by surprise.
Arpaio has been one of the most vocal supporters of the law. And he has made headlines for more than two years with his controversial immigration sweeps, typically placing dozens of deputies in neighborhoods with large Hispanic populations and ordering them to stop anyone for any violation.
What might surprise people is this: Arpaio's agency is the only one in Arizona conducting such operations, and most law-enforcement observers say they would be surprised if other police and sheriff's departments model their policies after Arpaio's.
Though few law-enforcement officials will speak publicly about it, their records suggest an unwillingness to follow Arpaio's lead. No other Arizona law-enforcement agencies have taken the same initiative Arpaio has in launching immigration sweeps.
Part of the reason is because there is no clear data demonstrating the crime-fighting effectiveness of such policies. While it succeeds in locating illegal immigrants, its effectiveness in combating major crimes is questionable, and there are concerns that such sweeps draw resources away from activities that do combat major crimes.
Advocates of the sweeps say their value is largely in discouraging illegal immigrants from remaining in the community.
However, critics suggest they simply scare legal and illegal immigrants alike and drive a wedge between members of the community and law enforcement.
While Arpaio's past 15 crime-suppression operations have captured a variety of criminals, the majority of offenders were booked for relatively minor offenses, an Arizona Republic review of crime data shows. For example, an April sweep caught 93 people, most of whom were snared either solely for immigration violations or for minor offenses. Only two violent offenders were arrested.
Arpaio's deputies have arrested 932 people in their operations dating back to March 2008. Of those, 708 were suspected of being in the country illegally, according to the Sheriff's Office.
The sweeps did result in some felony arrests of legal residents on charges including assault on a police officer, aggravated assault, trafficking in stolen goods and aggravated driving under the influence. The majority of legal residents arrested in the operations were booked on suspicion of driving with suspended licenses or on outstanding warrants.
Most of those suspected of being in the country illegally were arrested when Arpaio's deputies still had an agreement with the federal government that authorized them to act as immigration agents. The bulk of those inmates landed in jail based on their immigration status, though one was booked on suspicion of aggravated assault and another on suspicion of possession of dangerous drugs for sale.
Regardless of the type of suspects ensnared in the crime-suppression operations, Arpaio considers the ventures a success.
"I think it's successful when you arrest 111 people," Arpaio said, referring to arrests in an operation three months ago. "Is it successful to send hundreds of cops out every holiday to do DUIs? Why do we always pinpoint illegal immigration when we have other task forces? I'm the bad guy when we arrest illegal immigrants and other criminal activity."
The operations are based on Arpaio's stance that crossing the border illegally is a serious crime, regardless of whether the person commits other misdemeanor or felony violations after illegally entering the country. Critics respond that the raids waste resources when the agency has seen more than $10 million cut from its operating budget.
Not much is expected to change for Arpaio's teams when Arizona's new immigration law goes into effect July 29.
The law makes it a state crime to be in the country illegally. It states that an officer engaged in a lawful stop, detention or arrest shall, when practicable, ask about a person's legal status when reasonable suspicion exists that the person is in the U.S. illegally.
It does little to expand the authority Arpaio has exercised to date.
To conduct his operations over the past two years, Arpaio relied on an agreement with the federal government authorizing deputies to act as immigration agents and a state law allowing immigrants to be charged as co-conspirators in their own smuggling. Those not suspected of a crime typically were turned over to U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents, at which point they could either seek voluntary deportation or request a hearing.
Because Arizona's new law makes it a crime to be in the state illegally, sheriff's deputies will have the ability to book suspects into jail instead of handing them over to ICE agents.
The size and scope of the sweeps have varied since Arpaio launched the efforts in 2008 near 32nd Street and Thomas Road.
A three-day sweep in Mesa last summer paid 83 deputies and supervisors to arrest 59 people at a cost of $38,387. A two-day operation in Fountain Hills in May 2008 used 13 deputies, cost $3,947 and resulted in 20 arrests.
The Sheriff's Office pays for the operations through its general fund, state funding and grants. Arpaio is not concerned about the expense, saying the deputies in those operations would be working anyway - it is just a matter of when and where.
In October, the federal government severed the agreement with Arpaio's office that authorized deputies to act as immigration agents. The sweeps then changed from operations in neighborhoods to efforts largely concentrated on businesses, highways and rural roads in the county, where deputies could arrest suspects on identity-theft and fraud charges or using the state's human-smuggling law.
Roughly 60 percent of the 287 people arrested in those operations were suspected of being in the country illegally, and many were booked on suspicion of violating the human-smuggling law.
But in April, Arpaio's deputies returned to the familiar routine of concentrating on a particular part of town, this time west Phoenix. Records for that April raid show 29 of the 93 arrested were legal residents. Ten of those legal residents were fugitives arrested by the sheriff's warrant unit as the operation began.
The notion of the sweeps returning to neighborhoods is troubling to some critics, who worry about legal residents being caught up in the raids.
Sergio Martinez-Villaman claims that happened to him in a June 2008 crime-suppression operation in Mesa.
Deputies stopped Martinez-Villaman for failing to use a turn signal, according to the sheriff's records. They arrested him after they say he failed to show identification.
Before he was arrested, Martinez-Villaman, a Mexican citizen living legally in the U.S., claims he gave the arresting deputy various documents, including an Arizona ID card, proof of insurance, a passport and a visa, according to court records.
Martinez-Villaman was jailed and held for 13 days when he could not pay bond, court records say.
His attorney, Scott Halverson, said Arizona's new law might encourage more law-enforcement agencies to mirror Arpaio's approach to immigration enforcement. It could also result in more cases like Martinez-Villaman's.
"Even though the law tries to preclude that, the message it sent out throughout the community for law enforcement inclined to do this, is just go ahead and stop whoever you want," he said. "This is sort of a wink-and-a-nod implicit carte blanche to stop people for suspicion, just a check to see if they're here illegally."
Arpaio prefers to think that the unique nature of Martinez-Villaman's claim is a promising sign.
"You're talking about one case, what's one case out of thousands?" he asked. "You don't stop enforcing the law because one person sues you - then nobody would enforce the law."