U.S. Justice Dept. charges Arizona sheriff with discrimination against immigrants

On Dec. 15, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and Immigration Customs and Enforcement announced they would be canceling Maricopa County’s 287(g) agreement and restricting the Arizona county’s access to the Secure Communities program. This decision was based on findings by the U.S. Department of Justice that the sheriff’s office had been engaging in unconstitutional discrimination and racial profiling against immigrants (particularly Latinos). In a separate decision on Dec. 23, U.S. District Court Judge G. Murray Snow enjoined Sheriff Joe Arapio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office from “detaining any person based only on knowledge or reasonable belief, without more, that the person is unlawfully present within the United States,” effectively halting their enforcement of federal immigration law.

Arpaio, who styles himself as “America’s toughest sheriff,” has long been notorious for his unbelievably harsh treatment of prisoners, and especially Latino immigrants. Arpaio’s discriminatory practices include forcing prisoners to endure temperatures of up to 145 degrees in the notorious “tent city,” re-initiating the use of chain gangs, humiliating prisoners by forcing them to parade through the streets in pink underwear, and organizing all-volunteer citizen posses to help him enforce the law (including an armed citizens posse in November of 2010 to help his deputies conduct an immigration sweep to round up undocumented immigrants).
As a result of his actions and policies, Sheriff Arpaio has been accused of or has come under investigation for racial profiling, violating the constitutional rights of prisoners in medical and other related care issues, abuse of power, misuse of funds, and election law violation.
According to the Arizona Republic, the U.S. Department of Justice recently culminated a three-year investigation by sending a 22-page letter to Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, in which it stated that the following civil rights violations were found:
“Hispanics were routinely targeted for traffic stops without reasonable cause, and subsequently charged with immigration-related crimes. Legal residents were sometimes treated as if they were illegal immigrants and even jailed.
“Latino inmates with poor or no English proficiency were frequently punished for not understanding English, were required to fill out forms in a language they did not understand or were denied critical services available to English-speaking inmates.
“Community activists and critics who spoke out against the Sheriff’s Office’s treatment of Hispanics were themselves targeted for retaliation.
“The Justice Department also found that the Sheriff’s Office did not adequately train or supervise its personnel to avoid civil rights violations and, in fact, permitted the specialized units to engage in unconstitutional behavior.”
Julianne Hing, Colorline.com’s immigration reporter, stated, “For folks who are at all familiar with Sheriff Arpaio’s nasty tactics, none of the DOJ’s revelations are actually brand new. He engages in racial profiling, condones excessive force from his officers, and retaliates harshly against anyone who speaks out against him. He ignores actual, serious crime to hunt down undocumented immigrants. This is his brand.” Hing added, “The federal government contracted Arpaio, with programs like 287(g) to use his police officers to enforce immigration law. Now they’re chasing after him to rein him in.”
In the letter, the DOJ also issued an ultimatum to Sheriff Arpaio: either come to a voluntary (and court enforceable) agreement to stop discriminating against immigrants, or face a federal lawsuit under provisions of the Civil Rights Act. In a press conference held the following day, Arpaio defended his actions, stating, “We are going to cooperate the best we can. And if they are not happy, I guess they can carry out their threat and go to federal court.” Arpaio has until Jan. 4 to make his decision.
The limitation of Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s discriminatory actions and the elimination of Maricopa County’s participation in the 287(g) and Secure Communities programs must be celebrated as a victory in the struggle for immigrant rights; 287(g) is a federally funded program that authorizes local police officers to act as immigration agents. The fact that police officers are able to question people regarding their immigration status has long been shown to encourage racial profiling, and in places like Maricopa County, discrimination has run rampant. 
The Obama administration and ICE have recently pushed the increasing implementation of other ICE enforcement programs, such as Secure Communities, across the country. Secure Communities is a national fingerprint database used to check the immigration status of anyone booked into jail. Despite evidence of racial profiling and increasing resistance from counties, cities, and states where the program is being implemented, the Obama administration has vowed to implement the program nationwide by 2013.
Programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities are part of a wider strategy known as “attrition through enforcement.” It is clear that the United States economy is heavily dependent on the cheap labor of the super-exploited undocumented immigrant population. It is estimated that if all undocumented immigrants in the United States were deported, economic activity in the U.S. would decrease by over $500 billion, while GDP would fall by an additional $245 billion.
The tactic of “attrition through enforcement” was originally the brainchild of the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, the largest anti-immigrant hate group in the United States. It was designed to make life so difficult and absolutely unbearable for undocumented immigrants that they will be too afraid to speak out for their rights, to fight against injustice, or to struggle to make working conditions and life in general better for themselves and their communities.
“Attrition through enforcement” has recently given rise to extremely discriminatory anti-immigrant laws such as SB 1070 in Arizona, or copycat laws like HB 87 in Georgia, and HB 56, recently passed in Alabama. In these states, so many fearful immigrants left the state that crops began to rot in the fields for lack of anyone to harvest them, while parents pulled their children out of school.
A coalition of organizations, led by the National Immigrant Law Center and the ACLU filed a lawsuit against HB 56. Their complaint stated, “HB 56 is reminiscent of the worst aspects of Alabama’s history in its pervasive and systematic targeting of a class of persons through punitive state laws that seek to render every aspect of daily life more difficult and less equal.” In fact, according to a report from the bipartisan National Conference of State Legislatures, in the first half of 2011 alone, lawmakers from all 50 states introduced a record-breaking 1592 bills and resolutions dealing with immigration.
Despite these massive attacks on undocumented immigrant workers, the immense immigrant uprisings in 2006 and the nationwide protests against SB 1070 in 2010 show that immigrants do have the capacity to rise up and take their fate in their own hands. And while the recent federal decision against the discriminatory practices of Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a step in the right direction, it is clear that this is only a small victory in the greater struggle for immigrant rights. What remains now is to continue to struggle for justice for immigrants in all communities across the United States.  
> The article above was written by Lisa Luinenberg, and first appeared in the January 2012 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.