News / USA

Arizona Police Prepare to Enforce Controversial Immigration Law

Greg Flakus

Some law enforcement officials in Arizona are concerned that the state's controversial new immigration law, which takes effect on July 29, will create a burden for police. The law requires police in the state to check the immigration status of anyone they encounter in a lawful stop who shows some indication of being in the country illegally. Hispanics fear that suspicion could fall on anyone with dark skin, and result in police harassment of legal residents and citizens. Most police say they are prepared to enforce the law without violating any citizen's rights.

Hispanic groups in Arizona have condemned the new state law for what they describe as encouraging racial profiling, but the law's defenders say it specifically bars police from detaining anyone based on ethnic or racial appearance. Arizona law enforcers are now training to carry out the law as it is written.

Hipolito Acosta, a former federal immigration agent who now works for a Texas-based consulting group, recently helped make a training video for the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board on how police should carry out their new duties.

"It is like enforcing any other law," Acosta said. "You have to have certain factors built up before you make that stop and this law is no different, with the exception that there must have been some kind of lawful encounter before they start trying to determine those other factors."

The new law says an officer stopping any person or persons and inquiring about their immigration status must have "reasonable suspicion" of someone having violated federal immigration law. But what does that mean? Acosta provides an example.

"Let's say there are some bags in the vehicle which contain possibly some basic necessities, some water bottles, which would indicate a possibility that these individuals might have just crossed the border and walked through the desert, which happens quite a bit," Acosta said. "So the officer would then probably ask the individuals a simple question, did they have some identification or where they were going."

One thing that makes discussion of this law difficult, however, is that many people outside law enforcement have not read the law. Sergeant Fabian Pacheco, Public Information Officer for the Tucson Police Department says many Hispanics fear the law out of ignorance.

"A lot of people who are really worked up about this law, many of them, when you ask them if they have ever taken the chance to read the law you will be surprised, most of them have not, they are just going off all kinds of rumors that they are hearing regarding what and what not police are going to engage in," Pacheco said.  

Pacheco says 40 percent of the Tucson Police force is Hispanic and that all officers, regardless of race or ethnicity, are trained to avoid racial profiling. Still, he says, he worries that the controversy created by the new law will cause many people, especially undocumented immigrants, to avoid the police and refrain from cooperating with criminal investigations.

Pacheco also worries that officers' time will be taken up dealing with illegal aliens rather than responding to more serious crimes.

"Officers in the past could quickly deal with a situation and then go back in service and deal with those calls for service that are of concern to people here such as responding to violent crimes or burglaries, robberies, stuff like that," Pacheco said. "Now they may be stuck at a call dealing with an undocumented immigrant."

Some police officials also worry that officers could be sued by Arizona citizens who accuse them of not doing enough to enforce the law, while at the same time being criticized by civil rights activists for being too aggressive in carrying out the law's requirements.

Jack Harris, the Phoenix Chief of Police and head of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police explains.

"It puts Arizona law enforcement right in the middle," Harris said. "You have one side saying that we are going to be racial profiling; you have another side and a portion of the law that allows people who do not think we are doing enough to sue us and have some civil penalties attached to that as well. It is very, very divisive for us and makes it difficult for us to police our communities."

Opinion polls in Arizona show overwhelming public support for the law, but few experts believe it will have an impact on illegal immigration. Arizona has become the point of entry for more than 40 percent of illegal entrants from Mexico since the federal government began programs to tighten control of the border in California and Texas. Phoenix has now become the world's second-worst city for kidnapping, next to Mexico City, and some Arizona authorities say smugglers of drugs and illegal immigrants are to blame. Ultimately, both critics and supporters of the new state law agree, the problem can only be solved by the federal government.

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