PHOENIX – Hundreds of immigrant-rights activists sparred with the sheriff of Arizona's most populous county Friday, calling him heartless for arresting illegal immigrants under a state smuggling law.
More than 200 protesters marched through a small area of downtown Phoenix and stopped in front of the office of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for female chain gangs and forcing inmates to wear pink underwear.
Protesters walked diagonally through an intersection and met Arpaio on the other side.
"Sheriff, we are here to get on our knees and implore you to stop the hostility against the Hispanic community," said Elias Bermudez, president of activist group Inmigrantes Sin Fronteras, or Immigrants Without Borders.
Bermudez knelt in front of the sheriff as he spoke, saying, "We believe that your enforcement of the law is an affront to the poor victims — the people who are coming here to work and serve this country."
Arpaio refused to stop arresting illegal immigrants under the human smuggling law, whose authors say the legislation was intended to crack down on violent immigrant smugglers — not the people being smuggled.
Bermudez told Arpaio if he wouldn't work with the Hispanic community, Latinos will retaliate at the polls.
"We have come here, we have begged, we have gotten on our knees," Bermudez said. "You have not worked with us. The only thing we can tell you is you cannot be our sheriff. You are pursuing something that goes against the Hispanic community, and we as the Hispanic community will do our most to have you removed from public office, and we will do it through the polls."
Under a disputed interpretation by Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, the law is being applied to the smuggled immigrants themselves. Thomas maintains illegal immigrants who pay smugglers to enter the United States are committing conspiracy to smuggle and can therefore be prosecuted under the state law. It's punishable by up to two years in jail.
On Tuesday, a judge dismissed charges against two Mexican men at the first trial of the hundreds of illegal immigrants charged with conspiracy under the law. the next day, a jury found a smuggler guilty under the law.
Neither the protests nor the dismissals will stop him from arresting more illegal immigrants, Arpaio said
"I am going to enforce the law," Arpaio told protesters Friday. "You cannot change my mind."
The protesters also demonstrated in front of Thomas's office, but he wasn't there. Instead, he issued a statement through his public relations representative.
"The protests today remind us that America is a generous nation — so generous that we allow illegal immigrants to protest publicly in our streets and to demand that our immigration laws not be enforced," Thomas wrote. "However, it is my duty, as the county's chief prosecutor, to hold accountable those who violate Arizona's criminal statutes. This includes prosecuting those who violate our state law against human smuggling, a law designed to combat illegal immigration."
After speaking with Arpaio, Bermudez and the other protesters marched in a circle, chanting "Libertad" and "Si se puede," Spanish for "Liberty" and "Yes we can."
They carried American flags and signs that read, "Don't be nosy with the Border Patrol job" and "You can't have a crime without a victim."
One 9-year-old girl wore a black-and-white-striped prison uniform with a sign taped to her back that read, "I am not a criminal."
"I'm afraid my parents will go to jail," said the girl, Daniela Marqueda of Phoenix.
Another man, Cliff Clifton, shouted at Arpaio, calling him a "Nazi thug" and a "scumbag piece of garbage," to which Arpaio said, "Is that all you can say?"
One woman leaned in close to Arpaio, pointing her finger in his face to mimic the sheriff.
Earlier this week, local news channels showed Arpaio pointing his finger at the two illegal immigrants whose charges were dismissed, ordering them to go back to Mexico and tell all their friends to stay out of Maricopa County.