FLAGSTAFF - Local police intend to stay focused on controlling criminal activity within their own cities and counties, and won’t join federal immigration agents with increased efforts to crack down on illegal border crossers.
That was the apparent consensus of more than 100 peace officers from agencies throughout the state who joined Gov. Janet Napolitano for a summit on immigration enforcement Tuesday at Northern Arizona University.
The meeting was closed to all but law enforcement representatives who didn’t want to discuss their enforcement strategies and tactics publicly.
That led to a verbal showdown between 22 legislators, primarily Republicans, and one law enforcement official before the session. It ended with lawmakers quietly walking away after voicing their concerns before reporters and photographers.
Because the meeting was closed to the public, the reports of consensus were relayed by session facilitators, including Department of Public Safety Director Roger Vanderpool who said summit participants concluded police shouldn’t actively seek out illegal immigrants wherever officers go.
"They rely on the undocumented community to come forward to be their witnesses, to come forward and report when they are crime victims," Vanderpool said.
"To have county officers and city officers take on immigration duties would be somewhat counterproductive to fighting local crime," Vanderpool said.
But Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who was in the closed session, said the audience was directed only to ask questions of the key speakers. There was no debate, Thomas said.
"The reality is we can’t systematically exclude local law enforcement from the task of helping to fight illegal immigration if we are going to have any prayer of making a serious dent in this problem," Thomas said.
The two-hour summit was hosted by DPS at Napolitano’s behest after she vetoed legislation in May that would have allowed police to assist in enforcing immigration laws.
DPS officials called the summit "historic," but also said this was only the first step toward expanded cooperation on tackling human smuggling, stolen vehicles and fraudulent identifications.
Most of the meeting was devoted to discussing recent initiatives announced by Napolitano, including a special unit of 12 DPS officers who will work with federal agents to respond when police come across smuggler "drop houses" or other large groups of illegal immigrants in one place.
The only new proposal to come from Tuesday’s meeting was an informal agreement between federal immigration officials and the state Department of Corrections to deal with hundreds of state prison inmates eligible for deportation.
Corrections Director Dora Schriro said the meeting was her first opportunity to speak directly with the U.S. Bureau of Customs and Immigration Enforcement about 527 inmates eligible for early release who could be sent to their home countries.
Schriro had previously complained ICE moves too slowly in taking those inmates. But a face-to-face dialogue convinced ICE officials they could act more quickly, and save state taxpayers up to $26,300 a day, Schriro said.
The confrontation between DPS spokesman Rick Knight and nearly two dozen state lawmakers lasted more than an hour.
The group included Senate President Ken Bennett, R-Prescott, and House Speaker Jim Weiers, R-Phoenix.
"To believe that legislators should be excluded from this conference sends a chilling effect across this state," said House Speaker Pro Tem Bob Robson, R-Chandler. "We are outside the door, and we are shut out. That means the people of Arizona are shut out."
Knight told lawmakers they would have a chance to participate at another time.
The showdown ended quietly after Knight announced no lawmakers would be arrested if they ignored DPS’ request for privacy and entered the meeting.
"It’s tough to maintain respect and decorum when we are talking about the No. 1 issue confronting Arizona and the nation," said Rep. Russell Pearce, R-Mesa. "But wiser heads than me have prevailed here."
Some Democratic lawmakers accused the Republicans of hypocrisy in their demands, saying legislative leaders often meet in private to determine the outcome of legislation.
"This is supposed to be a search for solutions," said Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, DPhoenix,. "But you’re going to turn it into a political football and try to bash Gov. Napolitano."
Sinema was the only lawmaker who had registered for the summit with DPS, but was also turned away Tuesday.