Ten Republican congressmen said Wednesday that a civil rights investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office could have a chilling effect on other state and local police agencies that seek to crack down on illegal immigration.
The congressmen, who were responding a Department of Justice probe into allegations of discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures by the sheriff's office, asked Attorney General Eric Holder to voice support for vigorous immigration enforcement and assure police agencies that they won't face similar investigations.
"It is important that state and local law enforcement officers and the public are reassured that the investigation is proceeding in a judicious and fair manner, and not for the purpose of politicizing or chilling immigration efforts," the 10 congressmen said in a letter to Holder.
The Department of Justice didn't provide specifics of the allegations, but Sheriff Joe Arpaio said the probe was prompted by his immigration efforts, including his crime and immigration sweeps of some heavily Latino areas in metropolitan Phoenix. Arpaio denied allegations that his deputies racially profiled people during the sweeps.
The U.S. House's judiciary committee also plans to hold a hearing next month on the allegations against Arpaio.
Four Democratic members of the committee, including its chairman, Rep. John Conyers Jr. of Michigan, had requested the Justice Department investigation. The 10 Republican congressmen who wrote the letter to Holder are members of the committee.
Those who signed the letter are Reps. Lamar Smith of Texas, Jim Sensenbrenner of Wisconsin, Trent Franks of Arizona, Elton Gallegly of California, Steve King of Iowa, Howard Coble of North Carolina, Ted Poe of Texas, Louie Gohmert of Texas, Gregg Harper of Mississippi and Jason Chaffetz of Utah.
Hector Yturralde, president of the Hispanic civil rights group Somos America and a critic of Arpaio, said he believes the letter by the 10 Republicans was a political move aimed at helping a fellow member of the GOP and that Arpaio has targeted people simply because of the color of their skin. "If other agencies in the country are doing this, they should be stopped," Yturralde said.
Arpaio, who among local police bosses in Arizona has taken the most aggressive approach to immigration enforcement, said the investigation is politically motivated and pointed out that the federal agency that granted him immigration powers had said last year that they knew of no abuses by his deputies.
"I look at this as a political situation. I am not worried," Arpaio said.
Arpaio's immigration efforts include arresting more than 1,200 illegal immigrants under a state smuggling law and setting up a hot line to report immigration violations.
Arpaio has defended his crime and immigration sweeps by saying they were prompted in part by business owners' complaints about crime among illegal immigrants. Last year, the sweeps resulted in the arrests of about 200 people, half of whom were illegal immigrants.
Arpaio has said the people arrested were approached or pulled over in traffic stops because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes and that it was only afterward that deputies found nearly half were illegal immigrants.
Alejandro Miyar, a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice, issued the following statement in response to questions about whether Holder would follow the requests of the 10 Republican congressmen: "Career professionals in the Civil Rights Division began looking into this matter last year, and the Department made the decision to open this investigation in the same manner we make every such decision, based on the facts and the law."