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Progress or Posturing? Arpaio Investigation Drawing Mixed Reviews

While some immigration advocates are hailing the Obama administration's condemnation of alleged civil rights abuses by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, others question the timing.

Immigration protest at Texas Capitol. February 22nd, 2011

When the U.S. Department of Justice issued a report condemning Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio's "discriminatory" policing policies last week, some immigrant rights groups lauded it as a move toward immigration enforcement reform. Others, though, are worried it was nothing more than a conveniently timed ploy to regain support from disillusioned Hispanic voters.

Some say the Department of Justice's release of details from a three-year investigation into alleged civil rights abuses by Arpaio is an admission that collaborations between local law enforcement and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can lead to discrimination. Others, though, questioned the timing of the report, which came as President Obama's support among Latinos is waning. Immigrant advocate groups that have been critical of the president's immigration policies, citing his administration’s record level of deportation, are asking why it took the government three years to condemn Arpaio.

“Them coming out now is somewhat timely and looks like a political move," said Carlos Garcia, an organizer with Puente Movement, a migrants rights group in Arizona.

The report alleges that Arpaio, who last month endorsed Gov. Rick Perry for president, used his office to engage in “unconstitutional policing.”           

“Specifically, we find that MCSO, through the actions of its deputies, supervisory staff, and command staff, engages in racial profiling of Latinos; unlawfully stops, detains, and arrests Latinos,” the report states. The findings led Immigrations and Customs Enforcement to suspend Arpaio’s Secure Communities program and his office's 287g program, which allows officers to perform immigration functions provided they undergo specific training. Secure Communities, which is used statewide in Texas, compares the fingerprints of people in police custody against a federal database to determine if the individuals are eligible for deportation under federal immigration laws. 

The National Day Laborer Organizing Network said that if the move is purely meant to woo Latinos, it won't likely help the president win their support.

“President Obama needs to terminate the Secure Communities and 287g program if he wants to be serious about being a champion for immigrant rights,” said Sarahi Uribe, the network's national organizer.

But the Texas Democratic Party, which railed against proposed legislation to expand immigration powers to local police in Texas, defended the president.

“This is absolutely not about an election; it’s about doing what’s right. Sheriff Joe Arpaio was using his office to terrorize Latinos, and he needed to be stopped,” said party spokeswoman Rebecca Acuña. “Were it not for President Obama’s administration, several Republican-controlled states would be implementing cruel legislation that unconstitutionally targets immigrants.”

But other Democrats said Obama should stop trying to please immigration hardliners while trying to appear compassionate toward immigrants.

“He’s just caught in this bind, and they haven’t really taken a step to define themselves in one direction or another,” said Douglas Rivlin, the spokesman for U.S. Rep. Luis Gutierrez, D-Ill.  

Further Investigations

The DOJ's findings, whether steeped in politics or not, have spurred new hope among critics of the immigration programs that the federal government will investigate similar allegations around the country. On Tuesday, the department released the findings of another study accusing the East Haven, Conn., police department of discriminating against Latinos.

That report exposes a national epidemic of civil rights violations, the day laborer organization said in a statement, and it must raise questions about federal immigration programs that rely on local police.  

The DOJ did not respond to inquiries about current investigations in Texas, although a former member of a government task force created to examine Secure Communities said there have been allegations of abuse here.

“There have been investigations in some of the Texas communities. Where, I couldn’t tell you because those are usually confidential,” said former Sacramento Police Chief Arturo Venegas. He was on a 19-person task force the Department of Homeland Security created in June in response to widespread criticism of Secure Communities and allegations that it was being used to deport nonviolent immigrants instead of the criminals. Venegas resigned, though, after the task force released its first report. He said Secure Communities should have been terminated altogether and not simply modified.

Uribe called the DOJ’s finding proof that the Obama administration is divided over the programs. 

“So we feel like, in some ways, the truth is out with this Department of Justice report,” she said. “ICE is an accomplice to civil rights crisis in and outside of Maricopa County, and, if anything, I think it opens the door for renewed discussion on the Secure Communities program and calls to terminate it.” 

Asked to comment about allegations in the DOJ report against ICE and its local law enforcement programs, the DHS press office referred to an ICE website that says the program is undergoing significant changes. 

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