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Will Police Hate Arizona's Anti-Immigrant Law, Too?

If a bad law gets passed and no one is there to enforce it, will it still have an impact?

The nationwide public outcry over Arizona's new anti-immigrant law isn't surprising; activists see it as just one drop in a wave of state and federal crackdowns that have criminalized immigrants and unraveled civil liberties. The law, SB1070, doesn't just ruthlessly target Latinos; it pushes local police to profile and detain people suspected of being "deportable." You might think this is just the kind of unchecked power that a sadistic cop might relish. But a new flare of opposition actually comes from within the ranks of law enforcement.

The Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police has sharply criticized the legislation:

The provisions of the bill remain problematic and will negatively affect the ability of law enforcement agencies across the state to fulfill their many responsibilities in a timely manner.

While AACOP recognizes immigration as a significant issue in Arizona, we remain strong in our belief that it is an issue most appropriately addressed at the federal level.

AACOP strongly urges the U. S. Congress to immediately initiate the necessary steps to begin the process of comprehensively addressing the immigration issue to provide solutions that are fair, logical, and equitable.

In fact, Gov. Jan Brewer, too, cited the absence of effective federal immigration restrictions, but unlike the opposition, spun it as a pretext for enacting SB1070 as a stopgap.

One positive side effect of this political brinksmanship might be that it prompts the Obama administration and Congress to finally push through meaningful immigration reform. But reactionary state policies might bleed onto Capitol Hill as well. If Brewer's endorsement of apartheid-lite for Arizona is a sign of what's to come, we may very well see the national reform debate hijacked by paranoia and anger.

The Arizona law, coupled with the terror tactics of self-styled nativist hero Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Maricopa County, may already be setting off a cascade of anti-immigrant backlash in other parts of the country. Arpaio was recently in Orange County stumping for a longtime fan of his, reports the Register:

Arpaio is in town to support Orange County sheriff's candidate and former lieutenant Bill Hunt, who worked the crowd enthusiastically....

Hunt has for weeks called Arpaio a mentor and as the days pass he sounds more and more like Sheriff Joe, like someone who will buck the system at risk of being called a loose canon.

"We need to start thinking outside the box and doing in Orange County what sheriff Arpaio does," Hunt said. "When I'm sheriff, we'll screen everybody."

Many communities across the country may now look to Arizona as a potential model for a crime policy that codifies anti-immigrant discrimination. Still, many law enforcement officers have been speaking out against such draconian measures, questioning the wisdom and practicality of entangling police and immigration law.

Last fall, police authorities in Framingham and Barnstable County, Massachusetts reported they'd abandoned the notorious 287(g) program, which promotes cooperation between federal immigration enforcement and local police. One police chief said the "partnership" would do more to damage relations with the local immigrant population than to protect public safety.

The Police Foundation, an independent law-enforcement think tank, issued a major report last year explaining why compelling police to enforce immigration laws runs counter to the concept of holistic community policing:

Local police must serve and protect all residents regardless of their immigration status, enforce the criminal laws of their state, and serve and defend the Constitution of the United States. As police agencies move away from their core role of ensuring public safety and begin taking on civil immigration enforcement activities, the perception immigrants have of the role of police moves from protection to arrest and deportation, thereby jeopardizing local law enforcement's ability to gain the trust and cooperation of immigrant communities.

In addition to isolating and stigmatizing immigrants, needlessly burdening police departments, and incurring massive fiscal costs, Arizona's government may face legal trouble on two fronts. The ACLU's recent litigation against alleged unlawful detention in Colorado (h/t immigration law prof) suggests that policies that encourage the criminalization of immigrants will invite not only political antipathy, but also endless lawsuits. Meanwhile, the NY Times reports that Arizona's law bizarrely compounds the problem by enabling community members to sue "if they believe federal or state immigration law is not being enforced." In other words, the law leaves the police wide open to various legal challenges, either for being racist, or for not being racist enough.

Even a liberal bastion like San Francisco faces similar dilemmas. Like many other cities, it has a "sanctuary" policy that broadly restricts local police from colluding with federal immigration agents. But the policy has come under fire lately, with local officials and civil liberties advocates battling over whether the city should hand over undocumented youth charged with felonies.

Now, Arizona has become the latest testing ground for the boundaries of police aggression against people of color. It's not clear whether most of the state's police wish to emulate Arpaio's demagoguery. SB1070 purportedly provides some discretion in enforcement, so districts may vary in how stringently they apply the law. Yet the legal flexibility offers no comfort to immigrants and activists. It simply proves that Arizona, under the guise of establishing law and order, has made its criminal justice system even more arbitrary, chaotic, and alienating to the communities who have come to see police as the real security threat.

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Michelle Chen

Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times. She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working In These Times,, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine, Newsday, and her old zine, cain.

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