The first candidate to jump into the race to become Maricopa County's top prosecutor said Tuesday if elected he plans to stop prosecuting people who pay coyotes to smuggle them into the U.S.
Democratic candidate Gerald Richard, a former high-ranking Phoenix police official, kicked off his campaign with a laundry list of issues he would take on in office.
Among them, Richard questioned County Attorney Andrew Thomas' use of the state's human smuggling laws to go after illegal immigrants who pay smugglers to bring them across the border.
"Right now, I have to utilize my resources," Richard said, adding he would rather go after violent criminals than the "nonviolent undocumented immigrants" he described as landscapers, housekeepers and cooks.
As of November, 500 people in Maricopa County alone had been convicted under the law, which saw its first arrests in March 2006.
The law allows for certain immigrants to be charged with conspiracy to commit human smuggling, a felony.
Typically, those convicted are deported and never allowed to return to the U.S. because federal immigration laws bar felons from returning. If they do return, however, they can face time in prison.
Instead, Richard said, he would use the office's resources to help local police go after an estimated backlog of 40,000 felony warrants still outstanding in the county.
He called the warrants "the elephant in the room" and compared the immigrants to "a mouse."
Even though he will likely have an opponent in the Democratic primary, Richard spent much of his announcement attacking Republican Thomas, expected to run for re-election this year.
He accused Thomas of ordering the arrests of the executives of the New Times alternative weekly newspaper last year. The arrests, however, came under the watch of a special prosecutor and Thomas denied knowing about the arrests until after they took place.
Late Tuesday, Barnett Lotstein, a special assistant county attorney in Thomas' office, said the accusation was off base and inaccurate.
"Mr. Richard should maybe take a page out of Sen. (John) McCain's book and jump on the 'Straight Talk Express,' because he is not talking straight," Lotstein said, referring to the Republican presidential candidate's campaign bus.
Richard's announcement made him the first candidate to officially get into the county attorney's race.
Thomas is likely to run unopposed. Tim Nelson, Gov. Janet Napolitano's former attorney, is expected to announce his candidacy in about two weeks for the Democratic nomination.