The new top prosecutor in Arizona's most populous county said Wednesday he will focus on going after serious criminal activity committed by illegal immigrants in cartels and syndicates rather than average migrants who are just in the country to work.
Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley also said he would stop using a state human smuggling law to prosecute illegal immigrants on felony charges once the state's new law cracking down on them takes effect on July 29. Romley said he is ethically bound to use lesser charges under the new law instead of a controversial interpretation of a 5-year-old law used by his predecessor.
The former head prosecutor in Maricopa County, Andrew Thomas, charged illegal immigrants who were being smuggled into the country as conspirators under that law. Thomas resigned last month to run for state attorney general.
The new state law, known as Senate Bill 1070, creates a misdemeanor state charge of failing to carry an alien documentation card. Romley said most arrests made under that law will go to city courts for prosecution, but he vowed to prosecute any that land on his desk.
"The debate is over, the law passed, and it is my duty to enforce that law," Romley said.
Romley has been working on an immigration enforcement plan since he was appointed to the office by the county board of supervisors last month.
The plan, revealed at a press briefing on Wednesday, also includes collaborating with state, federal and local authorities to target organized syndicates and fugitives, enforcing the new immigration law and creating programs to educate businesses on proper hiring protocols.
He said he would take back enforcement of the state's employer sanctions law from Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who he said joined with Thomas to approach business owners as wrongdoers rather than people who were trying to comply with the law. Romley said he will develop a program to educate and certify businesses who are then presumed to be in compliance with the law barring the hiring of illegal immigrants.
"It's a totally different approach, to where we work with the business community rather than execute search warrants on the business community," Romley said.
Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio on Tuesday had accused Romley of allowing 32 illegal immigrants to avoid felony human smuggling charges by rejecting charges the sheriff wanted filed. Thomas secured the convictions of 1,357 illegal immigrants on the charges in four years.
Romley responded Wednesday by slamming Thomas' administration for not requiring the sheriff to provide enough evidence to go to trial, instead hoping that those charged would just plead guilty. His ethical obligation as a prosecutor requires that, he said.
"With a case such as that, to prove that case in trial you have to have certified copies from (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) that these people were here illegally," Romley said. "The county attorney's office never required that (of the sheriff's office) in the past. Never required it of them. It was sloppy work, it was a lazy person's work."
Thomas said Romley was abandoning a proven method of prosecuting illegal immigrants and making sure they don't come back once they're deported.
"We have won, at great costs, the ability to prosecute these people and make sure they have a felony conviction," Thomas said. "And we have lost that."
On enforcing SB 1070, Romley said he would work with county attorneys in the state's 14 other counties to create a standard procedure for prosecutions under the law. He said one of the elements he will push is for a full police report to be required for each arrest, so that the reasons for the original stop are apparent. On misdemeanors, often a police officer just writes a citation similar to a traffic ticket.
"It will eliminate hopefully some level of allegations of racial profiling," Romley said. "More is better in this case."