County attorney hopefuls differ on illegals fight - East Valley Tribune: East Valley Local News

County attorney hopefuls differ on illegals fight

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Posted: Saturday, September 20, 2008 6:40 pm | Updated: 9:33 pm, Fri Oct 7, 2011.

The slogan Andrew Thomas used to win the Maricopa County attorney race four years ago was as controversial as it was simple.

"Stop illegal immigration," Thomas' campaign signs declared.

His critics snickered at the platform and argued that it proved how little Thomas, a Republican, knew about the county attorney's job. Local prosecutors do not enforce federal immigration law.

But soon after he took office, a series of new state laws gave Thomas the tools needed to prosecute illegal immigrants for entering the United States without permission, and to fulfill his campaign promise to get the prosecutor's office involved in the issue.

As the race for county attorney again ramps up, the question is no longer whether local prosecutors should target illegal immigration, but how they ought to go about it.

The lawyer campaigning to unseat Thomas, Democrat Tim Nelson, was general counsel to Gov. Janet Napolitano for five years. He advised her to sign two of the laws that have been essential to Thomas' illegal immigrant prosecutions.

The rivals agree on two particulars of immigration enforcement, if nothing else.

Human smugglers should face felony charges. Businesses that knowingly hire illegal immigrants should lose their license to operate.

Still, Thomas characterizes Nelson as opposed to illegal immigration enforcement altogether. He contends Nelson would undermine recent efforts to curb the flow of illegal immigrants here.

"Maricopa County has become a model for the nation in showing how state and local law enforcement officials can fight illegal immigration successfully," Thomas said.

Not quite, Nelson argues.

He said Thomas has spent time and money prosecuting nonviolent illegal immigrants that should instead be used to go after smuggling ringleaders.

"Until we're actually focusing on breaking up the 'coyote' syndicates, we're not going to really make a dent in the problem," Nelson said.

Such tough talk is standard during the weeks leading up to Election Day.

"A county attorney doesn't want to be in favor of, or 'soft' on anything illegal," said Mike O'Neil, president of the Tempe polling firm O'Neil Associates.

Nelson said he recommended that Napolitano sign the anti-human smuggling law in 2005 after determining that it was constitutional.

Napolitano also signed the employer sanctions law, which threatens businesses with loss of their license if convicted of knowingly hiring illegal immigrants.

Nelson defended the sanctions law in court last year after a lawsuit challenged its legality; the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the law last week.

Thomas has said his prosecutors are working to build cases against a handful of Valley businesses but despite a few highly publicized raids no employer has been taken to court.

The county attorney's office has used the human smuggling law to prosecute several hundred illegal immigrants who paid to be transported into the country, rather than just the smugglers.

Thomas saw that the law allowed him to charge the smugglers' customers, largely non-violent illegal immigrants, as co-conspirators in smuggling themselves. The interpretation sparked a great deal of controversy, but the courts have repeatedly upheld it.

"We were intending it to be something that would go after the smugglers," said Nelson. "But, that said, I have said consistently that I think legally he's right."

Regardless, Nelson said he would use the law to target criminals working for smuggling rings exclusively.

He has repeatedly suggested that county prosecutors have not gone after smuggling rings.

At a news conference Thursday, Thomas used two large poster boards filled with the names of 138 convicts his office has prosecuted for their involvement in human smuggling. Thirty-eight of those received convictions on kidnapping or extortion charges, rather than just human smuggling, which Thomas says shows he is getting convictions of people involved in the rings.

"You can prosecute both the smugglers and the illegal immigrants," Thomas said.

The poster boards did not include the hundreds of illegal immigrants themselves who have made up the vast majority of Thomas' enforcement efforts.

Only the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has used Thomas' interpretation of the human smuggling law to arrest people who are simply in the country illegally as co-conspirators. MCSO said its deputies have caught roughly 1,000 to date, mainly as they were being transported by smugglers through the county.

Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Thomas have worked together closely on several fronts, particularly immigration enforcement.

Nelson said he would not prosecute the co-conspirators should the sheriff's office continue to submit such cases.

It is unclear how Arpaio would respond to such action.

"I'm not going to comment on the county attorney's office," Arpaio said. "I don't care what (Thomas) says or what Nelson says. I have no comment."

Thomas contends that Nelson's refusal to prosecute all illegal immigrants raises questions about his willingness to enforce the law as Thomas has interpreted it. Further, the incumbent's campaign has pointed to two federal immigration cases in which Nelson represented foreign nationals seeking asylum as evidence that Nelson sympathizes with illegal immigrants.

The cases involve a Guatemalan man who filed a lawsuit in 1998 and a Chinese national in 2000, court records show, who both sought political asylum in the United States citing fear of imprisonment or death in their home countries.

But Nelson says those cases were much different than people sneaking into the country illegally.

"The thing to remember, first of all, is those cases resulted in legal immigration," Nelson said.

Thomas and Nelson differ most significantly on a bill that never became law.

While it is already against federal law for illegal immigrants to be in Maricopa County, or anywhere else in the country, there is no state law against their presence. Thomas has lobbied the Legislature to enact a law that makes it a state trespassing violation as well.

Lawmakers passed such legislation in 2006, but Napolitano vetoed it. Nelson wrote the veto message for her.

"That would eliminate the excuses for political officials and some police agencies that don't want to arrest and detain illegal immigrants," Thomas said. "It's an important reform and I'm disappointed my opponent drafted the governor's veto message striking it down."

Nelson said lawmakers passed the trespassing bill to score political points. The law would have been unenforceable, he argues.

"The question is," Nelson said, "are you going to take a serious approach at the things that are practical and lawful and enact legislation that is consistent with those requirements?"

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