Arizona Police Split on Immigration Crackdown

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John Moore / Getty Images

Police watch as opponents of Arizona's new immigration-enforcement law gather outside the state capitol building on April 25, 2010, in Phoenix

Just moments before I was gently removed from the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police meeting on Wednesday, April 28, in Phoenix — it was, apparently, a closed meeting — the Hispanic, Harvard-educated U.S. marshal for Arizona stood up to brief the group, as had representatives from several federal agencies before him. "My name is David Gonzales, and I was born in Flagstaff," he said, smiling as he pretended to pull something out of his jacket pocket. "I've got my papers right here." The room broke out in laughter.

There's been no shortage of show-me-some-ID jokes around Arizona this week, but the association of police chiefs from around the state does have serious objections to SB1070, the controversial new state law that requires police to ask for papers from anyone they suspect is in the country illegally. The law's main champions certainly include some law-enforcement figures, like Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio and the bill's state senate sponsor, Russell Pearce, a former cop whose son (also a policeman) was once shot by an illegal immigrant. But the official opposition of the Chiefs of Police Association — on the grounds that the law amounts to an unfunded mandate, that it could hurt community relationships and that it distracts attention and resources from more serious criminality — shows that in Arizona, cops are just as divided about the law as everyone else.

Brian Livingston, president of the Arizona Police Association, which represents 9,000 rank-and-file officers and agents in the state, supports SB1070 without reserve. "What we've seen is inaction, a lot of discussion," he said. "We have officers getting killed, getting severely injured by illegal aliens." He told the story of officer Marc Atkinson, a young Phoenix cop whom Livingston had personally recruited to the force. Atkinson was killed by an illegal alien during a drug bust, said Livingston.

Livingston's organization is so enthusiastic about cracking down on illegal immigration that for the first time in its history, the group is not supporting Senator John McCain's re-election, choosing instead to endorse his tougher-on-illegals opponent J.D. Hayworth. "We implored John for many, many years to take action on illegal immigration, to no avail," said Livingston. Even though McCain voiced support for the bill just before the governor signed it, Livingston and many others still fault McCain for his previous attempts to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

The annual Border Security Expo in downtown Phoenix, held concurrently with the chiefs of police meeting, would seem like a hotbed of support for the state's new law. A thousand attendees — federal agents, defense contractors and cops — browsed booths hawking nightscopes ("Dominate the Darkness"), automatic weapons ("He who shoots the most. The fastest. Wins.") and heavily armored all-terrain vehicles with names like the Threatstalker and the Prowler.

But despite the enthusiasm for security gewgaws, there was little unanimity about SB1070 at the exposition. In his keynote speech, former ambassador to Mexico Jim Jones said the law is too fixated on hunting for people whose only crime is being in the U.S. illegally, which, he pointed out, is just a misdemeanor offense. "We don't deprive people who have committed a misdemeanor of having a life," he said.

David Aguilar, acting deputy commissioner of Customs and Border Protection, followed that speech with his own prescription for immigration and border issues. He didn't explicitly take sides on SB1070, but he argued for a "holistic" approach that includes a lot of help for America's neighbor to the south. "Speaking cop to cop," he told the audience, the real question should be "How do we help [Mexico] reduce the violence?"

The controversy alone made some law-enforcement officials uncomfortable. Walking on the floor of the exhibition hall, police chief Jerald Monahan of Apache Junction didn't want to comment about the law, except to take issue with the rising calls to boycott Arizona: "To boycott all of us when they're mad at a few people is not right," he said. "We're doing good work."

Chief John Harris of Sahuarita, the current president of the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police, said he opposed the law before Governor Jan Brewer signed it and still does today. He listed his objections: Immigration has traditionally been a federal issue, and the police already have "manpower and budget issues" that will only get worse under the law. "If we then arrest [illegals] on state charges, who will pay?" he asked. He's also concerned that victims may not report crimes to his officers. And finally, the threat of lawsuits — any citizen may sue a police officer or department for impeding the enforcement of immigration laws — makes him leery.

When told of the Arizona Police Association's support for the law, Harris nodded. "It gives police officers, in their mind, another tool," he said. "But if they get hit with a civil rights lawsuit, well, that's a problem for the chief of police."

Some of those same concerns about how the law affects police have been echoed outside of Arizona. Texas Governor Rick Perry notably said he didn't think the law would be right for his state, largely because it would take police "away from their existing law-enforcement duties" if they had to focus on immigration violations.

Ultimately Harris and the Arizona Association of Chiefs of Police will continue to oppose the law until it takes effect in mid- to late-summer. After that, however, they will uphold its provisions while being as fair as possible. "We are sworn," he said, "to enforce the laws of Arizona."