Arizona's New Immigration Law: Cops vs. CopWatchers

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Mark Ralston / AFP / Getty Images

Maricopa County Sheriffs frisk a suspect during an operational sweep on July 29.

Arizona's SB1070 is now law but, gutted of the provisions that made it a national controversy, it is a remarkably toothless instrument for policing, despite the huff and guff of anti-illegal-immigration hardliners like Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County (which includes Phoenix), who did not postpone scheduled sweeps through Latino communities. Indeed, for all the hype of Arpaio's "Crime Suppression/Illegal Immigration Operation" on Thursday, the day the law went into effect, he and his deputies arrested only three undocumented people. By contrast, on Wednesday nearly 90 illegal immigrants were arrested in a two-part sweep in Virginia and Washington, D.C.

What vaporized from Arizona's new immigration law were stipulations that law enforcement could require proof of immigration status from people they have stopped for questioning. The original version would have made it a state crime not to carry documentation; and it would have let police arrest undocumented immigrants if they were found seeking employment in a public space. If Arpaio were armed with all of that, the likelihood is that he would have detained a large number of people. In his 16 prior operations, nearly 1,000 suspected violators were arrested, 60% of whom were undocumented immigrants. This time, out of about 40 people the Sheriff's office apprehended Thursday, only a handful — just 7% — were illegal immigrants.

But there may have been other reasons the numbers were low, apart from the temporary injunction blocking the most contentious parts of the law. Some officers said the desert monsoon weather dampened the operation. Another factor may well have been Lydia Guzman, a prominent Hispanic activist, who, along with a group called CopWatch, designed a detailed messaging system to warn the Phoenix Valley of immigration sweeps. Guzman sent an initial text blast to 100 rapid response teams of business owners, Spanish radio stations, pastors and teachers, each of whom messaged their respective networks. At the same time, Guzman contacted lawyers, social workers and elected officials to be at the ready to help. "It spiderwebs out," she says. "Before you know it my text tree spreads out to thousands of people."

Sheriff Arpaio has called her out for undermining his work. "The Sheriff has even accused me of putting coyotes [the popular name for operators of people smuggling rings] on text tree," she told TIME. "But number one, they don't live here and, number two, a lot of smugglers are the ones we want put away. They are the ones who hurt our people."

In addition to Guzman's tweets, CopWatch visibly tails police operations. On Thursday, in one small West Phoenix mobile command center, members of CopWatch monitored police communications. "They just said '294 King' — that means immigration. Let's go," cried one member listening to the police scanners. And with that CopWatch activists grabbed cameras, lawyer contacts and car keys to follow Arpaio's sweep.

Sheriff Arpaio has been tweeting as well. A few messages sent to his followers and the press from Thursday: "Just got a report that protesters are now trying to block my downtown jail sallyport and are chaining themselves to the jail"; "Just finished up with protesters at the jail, we will now resume our operation"; then immediately after, "I'm heading over to 4th Ave Jail to see what's going on w/ protesters around the jail."

The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office arranged for nearly 45 media crews to trail along with the patrols. Sometimes, it seemed that Arpaio's media strategy got in the way of his own operation: his deputies had to delay the crime sweep to enable Arpaio to give a press conference at the jail where protesters chained themselves across the main booking entrance. "He can't stay away from the camera," says CopWatch activist Dennis Gilman. "We successfully disrupted his sweep, because all his deputies were down there dealing with the protesters."