Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his hard-charging office, famous for aggressive anti-illegal immigration enforcement in Arizona, is now being investigated by the FBI for alleged civil rights violations, according to a report in the East Valley Tribune.
“It changes the tenor and content of the investigation,” said Paul Charlton, former U.S. attorney for Arizona, “and it signals that there’s a new administration who has decided to dedicate a significant amount of resources to this issue.”
Whatever the change in tenor, Arpaio's supporters — and they are legion — call the investigation a "witch hunt."
Writing in the Arizona Republic, columnist E. J. Montini saw the resulting inquiry as turning Arpaio into "Joan of Arc," a martyr to the conservative cause against illegal immigration.
His opponents "philosophically disagree with Arpaio's use of deputies to enforce immigration law aggressively. A lot of folks do," Montini wrote. "But to suggest that he has acted with blatant disregard for people's civil rights or worse? That's a stretch."
The heart of the change is that, upon finding violations, the federal government can step in and limit how the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office operates, putting a big crimp in its much touted independence.
Ironically perhaps, federal officials are now apparently anxious to reel in a monster partly of their own creation. The Feds specifically groomed the sheriff's office as a quasi-government enforcement arm. It has the largest contingent of deputies trained and cross-designated as federal immigration officers.
No less than a hundred sheriff’s detectives and deputies have been given federal powers to enforce immigration law, including the authority to question people’s legal residency.
Furthermore, the sheriff's office has 60 ICE-trained detention officers with full access to the federal immigration and customs enforcement database. ICE linked up with the sheriff’s office in early 2007 in a program that permits ICE-trained local officers to act as federal agents.
In October 2007 and early 2008, the sheriff’s office launched massive crackdowns targeting day laborers in Hispanic neighborhoods. The office has zeroed in on human smugglers, their cargo and day laborers for three years, with deputies arresting roughly 1,000 illegal immigrants in that time — and triggering loads of racial profiling allegations.
Those days may be coming to an end, however, as the U.S. Justice Department ramped up a fresh civil rights investigation of MCSO last week.
On top of turning the FBI loose on theMaricopa County Sheriff’s Office, House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers Jr., D-Mich., announced plans to convene congressional hearings on local immigration enforcement. He has called Arpaio to be a witness.
"We're not trying to persecute or take advantage of anybody. Law-enforcement officers have a very important and valuable function. The problem is they can't interpret the law their own way to harass or use racial strategies to determine who they arrest."
U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder told Congress during his confirmation hearing that “safeguarding our precious civil rights” will be one of his chief concerns as the nation’s chief law enforcement officer.
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