A shift in political will across Arizona is pushing local police to start cracking down on the flow of illegal immigration.
In May, Gov. Janet Napolitano vetoed legislation that would have encouraged local law enforcement to assist federal immigration officials, in large part because of complaints from police and county sheriffs who say they don’t have the resources.
But more than 100 law enforcement officials are expected to attend an immigration summit Tuesday at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff. Roger Vanderpool, the new director of the state Department of Public Safety, will host the event at Napolitano’s behest.
Local police agencies are caught in the middle of a sharp debate over enforcing immigration law. Immigrant rights activists point to 1997, when Chandler police assisted federal officials in rounding up hundreds of Hispanics in a weeklong sweep for illegal immigrants. The roundup included temporarily detaining legal immigrants and U.S. citizens, which prompted a state investigation and two lawsuits over possible civil rights violations.
Eight years later, the civilian Minuteman Project is seeking to establish chapters from California to Michigan. Immigration control advocates say they must start volunteer border patrols because the federal government hasn’t committed enough money to the task and local police agencies refuse to get involved.
The policy of most Valley police departments forbids detention of people simply because they appear to be in the country illegally.
"The Mesa Police Department will not participate in enforcement of federal immigration laws," reads that city’s field manual for patrol officers.
Vanderpool said last week state and local officials can no longer stand aside as Arizona continues to be the central point for unauthorized crossings of the Mexican border.
"Our citizens are crying out for someone to do something about it," Vanderpool said. "I don’t think they make a distinction between whether a uniform is blue, brown, tan or green. They want law enforcement to do something."
Tuesday’s summit will be closed to the media and public, at the request of federal officials who expect to discuss sensitive intelligence and investigation techniques, a Napolitano spokeswoman said.
Napolitano, a Democrat, is reacting to efforts by Republicans to turn public frustration with illegal immigration into an attack point against her 2006 re-election bid. But Vanderpool also has brought a new attitude about immigration enforcement to the state police agency.
Before his March appointment, Vanderpool was the Pinal County sheriff. As a sheriff, he said, he had to deal with the problems stemming from illegal immigrants moving through his county. His office led the investigation into the running gun battle in November 2003 between two carloads of human smugglers on Interstate 10 near Casa Grande.
Now, Vanderpool already is establishing a test program with the U.S. Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement to pair federal agents with DPS troopers in Phoenix who will respond when police officers come across suspected illegal immigrants. Vanderpool said he’s working on an agreement with the Maricopa County Sheriff ’s Office to house such immigrants if federal detention facilities are full.
Sheriff Joe Arapio also has deputized immigration agents to work with his officers on arresting human smugglers or coyotes. But Arapio has said he doesn’t approve of arresting individual border crossers because he believes they need to be confident they can talk to police about smuggling and other crimes.
Napolitano said last week she believes there are other ways local police can help federal authorities without repeating Chandler’s experience in the ill-fated 1997 sweep.
"We need to take the rhetoric out of this issue and get very pragmatic and nuts and bolts about what can be done at each level of government," Napolitano said. "I don’t think any of us envision converting local law police departments into adjunct border patrol agents and having them do sweeps."