PHOENIX -- One quiet morning nearly 5 years ago, Manuel de Jesús Ortega Melendres, a 53-year-old Mexican tourist, was a passenger in a van that was pulled over – allegedly for speeding -- by a Maricopa County sheriff’s deputy. Ortega Melendres, who has dark skin, and his co-passengers, were asked to show their legal documents. Ortega Melendres did so, but was nevertheless arrested and detained for four hours. The driver of the van was never officially cited for speeding.
Ortega Melendres’ name now appears as a plaintiff on a class-action lawsuit that accuses the Maricopa County sheriff’s office of racial profiling during its immigration enforcement operations. Arguments for the lawsuit – it was filed four years ago – are scheduled to be heard in court on July 19th.
The trial represents a pivotal moment for civil rights organizations and pro-immigrant groups in the state that have spent the last five years denouncing Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s high-profile crusade against undocumented immigrants.
“At trial, we will prove that Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s fixation on immigration enforcement and his equating of ‘illegal’ with Latino has resulted in systematic civil rights violations,” said Cecilia Wang, director of the ACLU Immigrant Rights Project, which is representing the plaintiffs, along with the Mexican-American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF).
Wang said the sheriff’s office set up “drag nets” to capture undocumented immigrants during immigration sweeps and “in the process… violated the rights of countless Latino residents of the county.”
Plaintiff attorneys will have to persuade a federal judge, Murray Snow, that civil rights violations committed by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office were systemic – meaning, they were the result of orders being given from the top of the department.
In an attempt to show that “discriminatory intent” was at the heart of the immigration sweeps, civil rights attorneys have presented as evidence a number of personal letters received by Arpaio from his constituents 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.
“It is not merely the receipt of these types of requests, it is the fact that the sheriff is notating on them that action should be taken, and then giving them to the people [on his] team who are taking this sort of law-enforcement action,” said Andrew C. Byrnes, of the law firm Covington & Burling, which is also representing the plaintiffs.
“In many cases, the law-enforcement actions and the sweeps [took] place shortly after [Sheriff Arpaio passed] along this direction to his team,” he added.
One constituent wrote in a letter 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 subsequently targeted several times for immigration sweeps, according to court filings in the case.
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 crime suppression operations. Two sweeps were conducted in that city shortly afterwards.
Another letter, dated July 25, 2008, invited Arpaio to conduct more raids in the area and to specifically target day laborers. The letter reads: “Because of their demeanor, it is obvious (how) 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.”
ACLU attorneys will also argue in the case that Arpaio didn’t have specific policies in place to prevent racial profiling by his deputies.
“[The sherrif’s office] has failed to put in place routine mechanisms that any reasonable law-enforcement agency of the United States would have in place to detect, prevent and stop racial profiling,” said Wang.
ACLU and MALDEF are not seeking monetary relief but wish to stop the alleged practice of racial profiling by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office. Some of the changes they may ask for include the development of a policy to ban the practice of racial profiling, active monitoring of deputy conduct AND the keeping of records of traffic stops.
Previous rulings by Judge Snow would indicate he could rule favorably for the plaintiffs. On December 2011, Snow barred Arpaio’s deputies from detaining people based solely on the suspicion that they are in the country illegally.
The outcome of the trial stands to also cast a light on another pending lawsuit filed by the Department of Justice (DOJ), which alleges widespread civil rights violations against Latinos. The DOJ lawsuit is broader in scope than the racial profiling lawsuit, because it includes the treatment of Latinos within Maricopa County jails, as well as allegations of political retaliation against critics Sheriff Arpaio.
The ruling on the racial discrimination lawsuit may also impact Arpaio’s ability to enforce several state laws that target undocumented immigrants, most notably SB 1070, Arizona’s “show me your papers” law that was signed on April 23, 2010.
“There are some overlapping legal [questions], about whether local law-enforcement agencies have the power to detain people based solely on suspicion that they’re undocumented immigrants,” said Wang. But, he added, the recent Supreme Court ruling that three provisions of SB 1070 are unconstitutional “makes it clear the answer is no.”
Nevertheless, the one piece of SB 1070 that was upheld by the Supreme Court – the portion that allows law enforcement to ask people to show legal documents -- could still take effect as soon as July 20th. Independent of the current lawsuit, civil rights organizations are considering filing a request for an injunction on what some call the "papers please" aspect of SB 1070.
Arpaio started what he called his “crime suppression operations” in 2007, shortly after signing an agreement with the federal government – known as 287(g) -- that gave his sheriff’s deputies the legal authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
The immigration raids and sweeps that followed created an uproar, coming mostly from Latinos who felt they were being targeted because of the color of their skin. That in turn sparked the DOJ civil rights investigation, the ACLU / MALDEF lawsuit, and the revocation of the 287(g) agreement with the federal government.
In response, conservative politicians in Arizona, with Arpaio’s support, crafted the Support our Law-Enforcement and Secure Neighborhoods Act, aka SB 1070.
Arpaio is expected to testify during the trial that is scheduled to last until August 2nd. This is also an election year for the 80-year-old sheriff, who plans to run for re-election for the sixth time.
The sheriff’s office didn’t respond to a request for comment on the trial. Tim Casey, the defense attorney in the case, also declined to comment.
Defense attorneys have presented as evidence a report by the Center for Immigration Studies, an anti-immigration think tank, that analyzed the overall number of arrests of Latinos by Arpaio’s office during traffic stops -- not specifically the crime suppression sweeps – and which found there had been an increase in traffic stops across all racial groups between 2005 to 2009, a finding that defense attorneys plan to use to show that Latinos were not targeted.
Attorneys for the plaintiffs claim that Latinos have been stopped at higher rates than other ethnic groups during sheriff’s deputy 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 Latinos during immigration sweeps than during their regular patrols. Latinos 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 involved in a sweep than by a deputy on a regular patrol the same day.
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