"America's toughest sheriff," Phoenixs Joe Arpaio, is creating an armed "Immigration Posse" to combat illegal immigration, and Hollywood actors Steven Seagal and Lou Ferrigno, along with Dick Tracy and Wyatt Earp, have signed up.
Fighting Justice Department accusations that his office discriminated against illegal immigrants during arrests, Sheriff Arpaio said the civilian posse of more than 50 members gives citizens a chance to fight the problem inundating their border state.
"Law enforcement budgets are being cut and agencies are losing personnel and yet the battle to stop illegal immigration must continue," said the sheriff, who heads the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. "Arizona is the busiest port of entry for people being smuggled in from Mexico, Latin and South America. So asking for the public's help in this endeavor makes sense, especially given the success the posses have experienced over the years."
Fifty-six new Immigration Posse members from various professions were sworn in by the sheriff Wednesday as "illegal immigration fighters."
Mr. Seagal, who starred in such action movies as "Under Siege" and "Above the Law," is a sworn deputy in New Orleans. Mr. Ferrigno, who played the title role in the 1970s TV series "The Incredible Hulk," works as a reserve deputy with the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Office. Another new civilian volunteer is Peter Lupus, who starred in "Mission Impossible."
"These guys are busy with their acting careers, so I don't expect them to be here on duty very often," Sheriff Arpaio said. "But they can be instrumental in heightening public awareness of the immigration issue and encouraging others to join the posse's effort to help reduce the flow of illegal immigrants into our communities."
The sheriff also said Dick Tracy, a retired Chicago police official who now lives in Arizona, has joined the posse, along with Wyatt Earp, a Phoenix resident whose uncle was the Old West lawman of the same name.
The Justice Department lawsuit, filed in September in U.S. District Court in Phoenix, was the latest chapter in a bitter feud between Justice and Sheriff Arpaio, who is accused of failing to turn over documents sought since March 2009 that federal prosecutors say comply with its probe of purported discrimination, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and English-only policies in his jails that discriminate against those with limited English skills.
The sheriff has described the lawsuit as "harassment," saying thousands of pages of documents have already been turned over by his office to federal prosecutors.
He said the lawsuit made it "abundantly clear that Arizona, including this sheriff, is Washington's new whipping boy."
Assistant Attorney General Thomas E. Perez, who heads the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division, has said the sheriff's office declined repeated requests to turn over documents or meet with investigators.
He called the refusal "unprecedented," adding that it was "unfortunate" that Justice was "forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities."
There has been a continuing battle between Arizona officials and the federal government over the issue of illegal immigration.
The Justice Department also has filed a lawsuit challenging a law passed in Arizona giving state and local police the right to arrest anyone reasonably suspected of being an illegal immigrant, asserting that the legislation is pre-empted by federal law. The Justice Department, under both Republican and Democratic administrations, has maintained that immigration laws are a federal responsibility.
In its investigation, the department has focused on accusations that Sheriff Arpaio and his deputies engaged in "discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures," along with allegations that his jail discriminated against Hispanic inmates. The inquiry also has targeted allegations that bilingual jail guards were required to speak to inmates only in English.
Last year, the federal government stripped Sheriff Arpaio of his special power to enforce federal immigration law, although he continued to conduct law enforcement sweeps through the enforcement of state immigration laws.
Since the time Sheriff Arpaio took office in 1993, he has built up the volunteer posse to nearly 3,000 members, with 59 posses operating throughout Maricopa County.
He said the volunteer posses work thousands of hours and donate vehicles, planes and helicopters to the sheriff's office as well as a variety of professional services, saving tax payers millions of dollars each year.
"People from all walks of life have contacted my office saying they want to help me in this fight in some way. This is how they can do that - by being members of a volunteer posse with the specific aim of fighting illegal immigration and lending their particular expertise to the fight," the sheriff said.
Of the 56 Immigration Posse members, 33 are already qualified to carry weapons. They will work with deputies in searching for vehicles carrying illegal immigrants and the "safe houses," where the people are housed before they are sent out of state. They also will help maintain crowd control during demonstrations against the sheriff's immigration policies.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has investigated, arrested or detained more than 42,000 illegal immigrants during the past three years.
"My ultimate goal with the creation of this newest posse is to catch and jail as many illegal immigrants coming into this county [as possible] and to apprehend those who are illegally living and working here already," Sheriff Arpaio said. "Let's face it - my deputies are outnumbered; so the more volunteers we can get trained and out on the streets to fight illegal immigration, the better off we will be to fight it."
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