Arizona police see immigration law as enforcement headache

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PHOENIX — Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer called it “a victory for the rule of law.” But for many police chiefs, Monday’sU.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the “show me your papers” provision of SB 1070, the state’s immigration law, looks like a big headache.

Arizona may now require officers to ask for proof of legal status of people they stop for other reasons and suspect are in the country illegally. State law enforcement officials said the decision immediately made the job of Arizona’s street cops much more complicated, requiring them to conduct traffic stops and other activities with a new level of public scrutiny.

Critics have said the new police authority could lead to racial profiling. Obama administration officials, who had publicly dismissed the law as unconstitutional, warned that it would be watching closely for federal civil rights violations.


With officers across Arizona forced to walk a tightrope of legal complexity, cash-strapped municipalities also worry they could soon be defending a flurry of lawsuits by the federal government, civil rights activists and irate motorists — distracting police from their main goal of fighting crime.

“We absolutely expect lawsuits on both sides of this issue,” said Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor. “This will result in our officers being tied up in court rather than working on the streets to reduce crime.”

John Bennett, president of the Arizona Assn. of Chiefs of Police, said he expected “bumps in the road” in executing the new law.

“On the street, who knows what’s going to happen?” he said. “We’re going to enforce this law. There may be problems, but no matter what you do as a police department, you’re always subject to litigation.”

Though the court gave the go-ahead to a key provision of Arizona’s crackdown on illegal immigrants, it also warned that people could not be held for extended periods for not having proper immigration papers.

Within hours of the high court’s ruling, Brewer, a Republican, emphasized that police immigration checks based on reasonable suspicion during legal stops was now the law in her state.


“We will move forward instructing law enforcement to begin practicing what the United States Supreme Court has upheld,” she said, adding that Arizona officers would be responsible in their actions. “Civil rights will be protected. Racial profiling will not be tolerated.”

But the federal government put Arizona officials on notice that Washington would not tolerate the state’s enforcement of the new law “in a manner that has the purpose or effect of discriminating against the Latino or any other community,” U.S. Atty. Gen. Eric H. Holder Jr. said in a statement.

Holder also expressed concern that Arizona’s law would discourage crime victims, such as those in domestic abuse cases, or asylum seekers from contacting police out of fear of detention or deportation. “We will continue to use every federal resource to protect the safety and civil rights of all Americans,” Holder said.

Even before Monday’s ruling, Brewer ordered training materials distributed to all state law enforcement agencies, including a video that specified what officers could and could not do under the law.

By Monday afternoon, officials had issued revised guidelines taking the court’s ruling into account. They encouraged officers to review part of the material concerning racial profiling and said several chapters pertaining to provisions that were struck down should no longer be used.

The training materials make it clear that Latino appearance alone is not a relevant factor in determining whether there’s reasonable suspicion that someone is in the country illegally.


However, “The country of birth may be one factor that, in combination with others, may lead to a determination of reasonable suspicion of unlawful presence,” the training manual states.

Mary Rose Garrido Wilcox, a Maricopa County supervisor and outspoken critic of SB 1070, said she would continue work with local organizations to calm fears and inform immigrant communities about their rights. “We’ll be telling people they don’t have to leave,” she said.

She expects lawsuits soon after the implementation of the law.

In their ruling, the justices said the federal government had the ultimate authority to decide who would be held on immigration charges and possibly deported. Arizona police officers must also check with federal immigration agents before deciding to hold any suspects, the court ruled.

Federal immigration officials in Arizona were instructed by the Department of Homeland Security not to respond to traffic stops or similar law enforcement encounters unless the person in custody was a convicted criminal, had been removed from the U.S. previously and reentered illegally or was a recent border crosser. They will, however, respond to telephone requests from local law enforcement to verify a detainee’s immigration status.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement also rescinded agreements with several Arizona law enforcement agencies, including the Arizona Department of Public Safety and police departments in Phoenix and Mesa, as well as several county sheriff’s offices.

Los Angeles Police Chief Charlie Beck said it was bad policy to use local law enforcement to enforce immigration laws. “It breaks down trust and limits cooperation in a large segment of the population we serve [and] overtaxes our limited resources,” he said.


In a news conference Monday, Villasenor, the Tucson police chief, expressed a similar concern — that the law would damage the relationship his department had worked to mold with the city’s Latino community.

He said his officers on average had cited and released thousands of people a year. Now, police officers will have to verify people’s immigration status before letting them go, depending on how quickly federal officials respond.

“I think this is a setback for local law enforcement,” Villasenor said. “This is not what we’re here to do. We’re here to ensure the safety of all involved.”

Esquivel reported from Phoenix and Glionna from Las Vegas.


Times staff writer Joel Rubin in Los Angeles and special correspondent Megan Kimble in Tucson contributed to this report.