People such as the elusive Baseline Rapist are the real criminals on the street — not illegal immigrants. That was one of the messages that several hundred people conveyed in downtown Phoenix on Friday morning as they criticized Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and County Attorney Andrew Thomas for interpreting a law against human smuggling that has allowed them to jail hundreds.
Arpaio and Thomas have decided to use an antismuggler law as a tool to charge undocumented immigrants with conspiracy to commit human smuggling. So far, nearly 250 people have been jailed under the law.
Friday’s demonstration was staged by statewide advocacy group Immigrants Without Borders (Emigrantes Sin Fronteras) and drew hundreds of mostly Latino protesters from all over the Valley. Some carried signs bearing the police sketch of the Baseline Rapist with the words “This is the real criminal.” Others had posters accusing Arpaio of racism.
Protesters wore makeshift plastic handcuffs and blue tape over their mouths as they marched to Arpaio’s office, where the group’s president, Elías Bermúdez, got down on his knees in a melodramatic gesture before the sheriff and a media mob.
“We implore you to stop the hostility against the Hispanic community,” Bermúdez said.
But Arpaio wasn’t budging.
“You can’t change my mind on this,” Arpaio countered. “I will continue to lock up illegals who conspire with smugglers.”
Bermúdez then told Arpaio he would be out of a job if he didn’t reconsider.
“If you don’t want to work with us, then the only thing I can tell you is you cannot be our sheriff,” he said.
Arpaio and Thomas have been using the human trafficking law to arrest the people who hire “coyotes,” or human smugglers, even though critics say the law was drafted with only the smugglers in mind. Several months ago, Arpaio launched a posse of civilians charged with patrolling the county border to stop anyone trying to smuggle themselves into the country.
In June, a Superior Court judge upheld the county attorney’s legal interpretation of the coyote law.
Yet the very same judge delivered a blow to Arpaio’s efforts Tuesday when he dismissed conspiracy charges against two of the first immigrants tried under the law.
Still, that ruling does not set a legal precedent, and Arpaio plans to continue prosecuting illegal immigrants as conspirators. His actions have left many pro-illegal immigrant groups outraged.
“(I’m here) because I consider it important to fight for our rights and our dignity,” Mesa resident and volunteer Ernesto Acuña said in Spanish.
“I’m an immigrant, and although I’m here legally in this country, all of the immigrants contribute to the growth of this country.”
María Delcarmen, of Emigrantes Sin Fronteras, accused Arpaio of injustice.
“It’s not right the way he’s enforcing the law,” she said in Spanish. “We are human beings, and we came here to this land out of hunger and necessity — for a better future for our children.”
After the scene with Arpaio, the crowd picketed and chanted before marching across the street to the county attorney’s office in an effort to confront Thomas.
But Thomas was out of town, and a man who came to talk to Bermúdez told him the office “was not prepared” for the situation.
The department accepted a letter from Emigrantes Sin Fronteras, and Thomas later issued a statement through his spokesman saying he will continue to uphold the law.
Bermúdez said he was not happy with Arpaio’s response.
“I’m very disappointed,” Bermúdez said. “He proved he does not have a heart — he only has a badge.”