PHOENIX, Ariz.—Racially charged letters sent to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio by his constituents—submitted Friday as evidence in a three-year-old racial-profiling lawsuit—could shed light on the motivations behind immigration sweeps by America’s toughest sheriff.
The letters are contained in a motion requesting U.S. District Court Judge Murray Snow to issue a partial summary judgment —basically, to rule without going to trial—that Arpaio’s agency engaged in racial profiling.
The lawsuit, filed in July 2008, came in response to the controversial practice initiated by Arpaio of conducting crime suppression sweeps in Hispanic neighborhoods by performing traffic stops for minor offenses to later inquire about an individual’s immigration status.
Civil rights attorneys—including the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF), the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and the law firm Covington & Burling— argue that the sweeps by Arpaio's deputies violated the equal protection clause of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
Arpaio started what he called his “crime suppression operations” in 2007, shortly after signing an agreement with the federal government that allowed him to deputize 160 of his officers to enforce immigration laws.
The plaintiffs in the class-action lawsuit include immigrant rights group Somos America, four Latino U.S. citizens and a Mexican tourist, who claim they were racially profiled by sheriff’s deputies.
Arguing that “discriminatory intent” was at the heart of the sweeps, civil rights attorneys backed up the claims with a number of constituent’s letters received by Arpaio that called for racial profiling.
Arpaio kept a file of the letters, sent thank-you notes to the writers and circulated them among his staff, according to the court documents filed by the civil rights attorneys.
“The record contains several instances where law-enforcement operations directly followed racially charged requests for sweeps in the same area,” the motion says.
One letter stated that “dark skin” is “the look of the Mexican illegals that are here illegally” and urged Arpaio to “come over to 29th Street/Greenway Parkway area and round them all up.”
The area was targeted several times for sweeps, according to the attorneys.
A letter, dated May 24, 2008, requested that Arpaio conduct a sweep in the city of Mesa. Arpaio wrote a note on it saying, “I will be going into Mesa,” and \sent a copy to Chief Brian Sands, in charge of the crime suppression operations.
Two sweeps were conducted in that city shortly afterwards.
Another letter, dated July 25, 2008, invited Arpaio to do more raids in the area and to specifically target day laborers. The letter reads: “Because of their demeanor, it is obvious to pick out the illegals from the American citizens. I strongly request that you return to Mesa and help rid the city of this irritating problem.”
Most of the constituents who wrote to Arpaio didn’t describe criminal activity. Rather, they urged the Maricopa County Sheriff’sOffice (MCSO) to take action against people perceived to be undocumented immigrants based on the way they spoke or the color of their skin. Sheriff’s personnel stated during depositions that “saturation patrols are regularly initiated based on citizens complaints,” according to the motion.
When contacted by New America Media, Arpaio said he could not comment about an ongoing investigation.
The selection of the neighborhoods in which Arpaio chose to conduct his sweeps also shows discriminatory intent, the civil rights lawyers argue, because sweeps targeted areas with high concentrations of day laborers.
“It is clear, then that the MCSO’s saturation patrols were initiated to target a particular protected group, Hispanics, and not to target actual criminal activity,” the motion reads.
Correspondence involving deputies who worked in the Human Smuggling Unit —which was central to the sweeps—also demonstrate racial bias, according to attorneys. One internal email that was circulated among staff had an attachment titled “Indian Yoga versus Mexican Yoga.” It depicted a man in a yoga pose with a caption that reads “Indian Yoga -- Requires years of practice to achieve” and another man who appears to be intoxicated, with a caption that reads “Mexican Yoga -- Requires about 3-4 hours to achieve.”
Some of the internal emails were backups recovered from the county's computer system, after the sheriff’s office claimed they had been accidentally deleted .
According to the motion, Arpaio did little to prevent or monitor racial profiling within his agency, while promoting it with his own statements to the media.
During one interview with Glenn Beck on Oct. 9, 2009, Arpaio said he would enforce the federal immigration laws based on people’s “speech, what they look like, if they look like they came from another country.”
Arpaio’s department has no written policy to define or prohibit racial profiling among its deputies, the court filing contends.
The motion also claims that Hispanics are stopped at higher rates than other ethnic groups during Arpaio’s saturation patrols.
According to an analysis conducted by Ralph B. Taylor, a criminal justice expert and professor at Temple University in Pennsylvania, deputies were more likely to stop ispanics during MCSO sweeps than during their regular patrol. Hispanics were nearly 30 percent more likely to be stopped during the sweeps, according to his analysis.
The report also indicates that Hispanics were up to 54 percent more likely to be stopped by deputies in a sweep than by a deputy on a regular patrol the same day.
Attorneys for the Sheriff's Office filed a separate motion asking Judge Snow to dismiss the racial-profiling claims. They argue that all the traffic stops were based on probable cause, and that there is no evidence of racial intent.
Defense attorneys presented a report by the Center for Immigration Studies—an anti-immigration think tank—that analyzed the overall number of arrests of Hispanics by Arapaio's office in traffic stops (not specifically the crime suppression sweeps). The analysis found an increase in traffic stops across all racial groups between 2005 to 2009, and argued that Hispanics were not overrepresented.
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