Gilbert Mayor Steve Berman’s push to have his city’s police routinely enforce federal immigration laws is only a preview of what is likely to be a dramatic, if disappointing, shift in priorities imposed on police officers and sheriff’s deputies across Arizona in the coming year.
Capitol Media Services reported in Sunday’s Tribune that immigration control activists are moving to place two new initiatives on the November 2008 general election ballot. One of these measures would expand the state crime of trespassing to include the presence of someone illegally in this country, and would forbid any government from stopping local police from inquiring about someone’s immigration status.
Considering the overwhelmingly passage of a 2004 initiative to deny some state benefits and to require photo identification to vote, as well voter approval for four other illegal immigrant-related ballot measures last year, it’s safe to assume the trespassing/local police initiative would be approved as well if it qualifies for the ballot.
At one time, Arizona law enforcement leaders (as well those around the rest of the country) considered the presence of illegal immigrants to be a problem for the federal government to solve. Tackling the issue at a local level would require significant new training for most police officers and a huge shift in resources away from solving crimes more familiar to their agencies. Many police experts also are convinced that local enforcement would drive crime victims who are immigrants into hiding instead of reporting the crime, letting their attackers roam free to victimize others.
The 1997 roundup in Chandler, which resulted in civil rights investigations and public apologies from the mayor, was a stark reminder of the risks of local police involvement.
But memories from Chandler have faded in the past decade, and opposition to local immigration enforcement has been eroding in the face of withering public criticism and the election of some politicians who campaigned on an agenda of getting involved. Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and Sheriff Joe Arpaio began prosecuting migrants caught traveling with human smugglers as conspirators. The state Department of Corrections first received federal training to check for immigration status and detain those here illegally, and now members of the state Department of Public Safety, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office and the Phoenix Police Department are all undergoing similar training.
Gov. Janet Napolitano and the city of Phoenix have repeatedly emphasized that officers under their control will use their federal instruction only to better investigate violence and drug crimes committed by illegal immigrants. But Arpaio says he expects his 160 deputies with federal training to routinely ask about immigration status and arrange for deportation of those who don’t belong here.
East Valley police agencies now say their officers can decide on their own whether to check into immigration issues as they go about their duties. But as Berman’s comments to the Tribune last week reveal, the pressure for formal police involvement has reached the breaking point. And the trespassing/local enforcement initiative will provide Arizona voters an opportunity to force local police into action.
Wise police leaders will start preparing their mindsets, and their budgets, to adjust to this new reality.