Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon has empowered a panel of former federal, state and county law officials to craft a new policy for the Phoenix Police Department that would allow officers to apprehend illegal immigrants and notify federal immigration officials.
The development marked an abrupt change of course for Gordon, who had supported his police department’s policy of not enforcing immigration laws in most instances.
Gordon told reporters Monday at a news conference at City Hall that he can no longer support the current “sanctuary” policy.
“When it was written, it was right for local law enforcement and our community. But it was written in another time — and it was based on the premise that the federal government would fulfill all its responsibilities regarding enforcement,” he said.
“Obviously, that has changed.”
Gordon’s reversal came amid increasing rancor among law enforcement officials statewide regarding immigration enforcement policies.
The nonpartisan Rocky Mountain Poll last week showed 58 percent support statewide for local police enforcing immigration law, but it also exposed sharp divisions along political and ethnic lines.
For example, 63 percent of non-Hispanics support the idea, while only 20 percent of Hispanics support it.
The debate has also been fueled in recent weeks by protests for and against immigration enforcement, and by presidential candidates who campaign on immigration issues during appearances in the border state.
Yet at the federal level, the matter is likely to be avoided at least until a new president takes office in 2009, said Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., who is expected to be named to the No. 2 leadership position among Senate Republicans this week.
“Realistically, immigration is probably not going to be raised for a couple of years,” he told the Tribune last week. “If there are 50 senators, you get 50 different opinions about what needs to be done. It’s very hard to get a consensus on that.”
In the meantime, states and cities increasingly have been trying to address illegal immigration. A state court is expected to rule this week on the legality of a new state law that would revoke business licenses of employers that knowingly hire illegal immigrants.
Hispanics — both U.S. residents and illegal immigrants — are already afraid of ethnic profiling by police, said activist Elias Bermudez, founder of the Phoenix-based immigrants rights organization Immigrants Without Borders.
“It’s fear on top of fear. It’s total terror right now in the community,” he said.
Illegal immigrants who are victims or witnesses to crimes will be reluctant to speak to police officers, because they face the possibility of being deported themselves, said Bermudez, a naturalized U.S. citizen from Mexico.
Bermudez, a Spanish-language radio host, said he plans to advise his listeners to clam up if police officers question their immigration status.
“My message is: ‘Please do not answer the question: Are you here legally or not?’ That question has to be answered in a court of law and under the due process of law,” he said.
Gordon said he does not envision police making random stops to check people’s immigration status. Instead, he foresees a policy that will allow officers to inquire about immigration status while investigating other criminal activity.
The mayor enlisted the aid of former U.S. Attorneys Paul Charlton and Jose Rivera, former state Attorney General Grant Woods and former Maricopa County Attorney Rick Romley to consult with police officials and draft a new policy by Dec. 31.
Gordon directed the former prosecutors to consider two important criteria: The new policy should ensure constitutional rights and prohibit racial and ethnic profiling.
Gordon and Phoenix police Chief Jack Harris previously cited the expense involved in immigration enforcement as one factor is not pursuing immigration enforcement, but on Monday, Gordon said cost will not be considered in drafting the new policy.
Gordon said a change will help ensure public safety.
“The problem has escalated to where it is ugly, it is dangerous. The federal government is unable to complete what they should be doing, and I cannot, as mayor, allow the situation, the status quo, to stay the same,” he said.
Harris can enact a new policy without further approval from the city council or police oversight boards, said Sgt. Joel Tranter, a Phoenix police spokesman. The current policy has been in place for 15 years, though it has undergone a few revisions during that time, he said.
Gordon’s news conference came a day after Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas held one to announce that his office has prosecuted its 500th defendant under the state’s human smuggling statute.
The county attorney’s office has obtained a 94 percent conviction rate on charges of conspiracy to commit human smuggling, a felony.
On Monday, Thomas said he was pleased that Gordon is seeking to modify the policy.
“That would be an important first step in engaging law enforcement in the illegal immigration fight. There remains the important task of fully enforcing the human smuggling law, which only the sheriff’s office does at this point,” he said.
Thomas said he and Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio are concerned about the makeup of Gordon’s panel, and in particular by Romley, who has criticized Thomas and Arpaio for enforcing the human smuggling law. “Hopefully, those biases can be set aside,” he said.
The majority of the illegal immigrants he has prosecuted have been given credit for the time they served in county jail awaiting trial — generally two to three months — and placed on two years’ probation.
“The result is that they’ve been incarcerated and properly penalized for violating the law and with a felony conviction, that status greatly undermines their ability to immigrate here legally,” Thomas said.
Phoenix police appear to be headed in the same direction as Mesa police, said Steve Berry, a Mesa police spokesman.
“If we have someone who is under arrest, whether it be for a misdemeanor or a felony, and they’re in custody and their legal status is in question, then the officer may contact (U.S. Immigration and Custom Enforcement) at that time, but we don’t specifically target individuals based on race,” he said.
In recent weeks, Arpaio has authorized sheriff’s deputies to arrest suspected illegal immigrants solely for their immigration status in Mesa.
Mesa police Chief George Gascón was unavailable for comment on Monday’s developments.
Bermudez said Gordon bowed to public pressure by anti-immigration forces.
“The Hispanic community has to have some responsibility in this because we never supported the mayor and the chief of police. We never came out strongly in favor of what he was doing in favor of our community,” he said.
In a related issue, Arpaio’s popularity appears to have peaked, according to results of the Rocky Mountain Poll released Monday. His approval rating was 64 percent in March but 59 percent in November, according to a survey of 500 heads of households conducted Nov. 12-15.
“He still enjoys a popularity level that most politicians would give their eye teeth for, but he is not as popular as in the past,” said Jim Haynes, president of Phoenix-based Behavior Research Center, which conducted the poll.
The survey had a margin of error of 4.5 percentage points.