PHOENIX – Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, the self-proclaimed 'America's Toughest Sheriff,' who led the way for local law enforcement across the country to take up immigration enforcement, is now pulling back on his crackdown.
Other law enforcement officials who have followed Arpaio's lead are also expected to eventually back away from doubling as immigration agents, traditionally considered a federal responsibility.
Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes metropolitan Phoenix, has temporarily suspended all his immigration efforts after a federal judge concluded two weeks ago that the sheriff's office had racially profiled Latinos in its patrols, Arpaio spokesman Brandon Jones said.
Arpaio has for years created national headlines for his notorious criticism over Washington's handling of illegal immigration.
His critics, including the federal government, are gaining ground in their fight to get the sheriff out of immigration enforcement. Even before the ruling, Washington had stripped Arpaio's office of its approved federal immigration arrest powers and started to phase out the program across the country amid complaints that it led to abuses by local officers.
The recent ruling against Arpaio is expected to impact state immigration laws in Arizona, Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, where local officers question people's immigration status in certain instances.
"We are out of the immigration business until that hearing. Until that hearing, better safe than sorry."
The national mood on immigration also has changed dramatically. Fewer states are seeking their own immigration laws, and proponents for Congress to overhaul the nation's immigration system have public opinion on their side.
Peter Spiro, a Temple University law professor who specializes in immigration law, said the May 24 ruling marks a big blow for Arpaio and the movement for more local immigration enforcement. "It's a cautionary tale for any other would-be Joe Arpaios out there," Spiro said. "This is an example that others can hardly afford to ignore."
The temporary suspension of Arpaio's immigration enforcement efforts marked the first pause since the lawman launched his crackdowns more than seven years ago and made combating the nation's border woes a central part of his political identity.
His immigration work will remain on hold until at least June 14, when lawyers will attend a hearing and discuss possible remedies to the constitutional violations found by U.S. District Judge Murray Snow. It's not known whether Arpaio will resume immigration enforcement after the hearing.
The ruling doesn't altogether bar Arpaio from enforcing the state's immigration laws, but imposes a long list of restrictions on his immigration patrols, such as a prohibition on using race as a factor in deciding whether to stop a vehicle with a Latino occupant.
The sheriff won't face jail time or fines as a result of the ruling. But lawyers opposing the sheriff are expected to seek more training for officers, better record-keeping of arrests and a court-appointed official to monitor the agency's operations to make sure the sheriff's office isn't making unconstitutional arrests.
"We are out of the immigration business until that hearing," Jones said. "Until that hearing, better safe than sorry."
After Arpaio lost his federal immigration arrest powers in October 2009, he cited state immigration laws as he continued to carry out enforcement efforts.
It has been almost two years since Arpaio conducted his last signature sweep, in which deputies flood an area of a city — in some cases, heavily Latino areas — over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders. Even so, he continued enforcing Arizona's immigrant smuggling law and another state law that bans employers from hiring immigrants living in the country without permission. The sheriff's office put both enforcement approaches on hold after Snow's ruling.
Cecillia Wang, a lawyer who pressed the profiling case on behalf of a group of Latinos and the leader of the American Civil Liberties Union's immigrant rights project, said the Arizona sheriff isn't the only local official that has violated the rights of Latinos in immigration enforcement, but he's the most vocal about it.
"There are other agencies out there that have been doing similar things more quietly," Wang said.
The ACLU pointed to several counties in North Carolina, for instance. The U.S. Justice Department filed a lawsuit in December alleging that Alamance County Sheriff Terry S. Johnson and his deputies made unwarranted arrests with the goal of maximizing deportations.
Federal authorities accuse Johnson of ordering his deputies to arrest motorists who appeared Latino — even for minor traffic infractions — while letting white drivers off with warnings. They also allege Johnson ordered special roadblocks in neighborhoods where Latinos live.
Chuck Kitchen, an attorney representing Johnson's office, vigorously denied the allegations and said he didn't see any similarities between the cases. "I don't think the ruling has any effect on Alamance," Kitchen said.
Jessica M. Vaughan, an analyst with the Center for Immigration Studies, which advocates for stricter immigration laws, disputed the notion that Arpaio's racial profiling ruling will have a chilling effect on local immigration efforts.
Vaughan said the prevailing view within local agencies is that it's their responsibility to work with the federal government on immigration.
"They would be derelict in their duty if they did not," she said.
In an interview earlier this week, Arpaio said he was surprised by Snow's ruling, but declined to talk about the decision's effects on his immigration enforcement. "I respect the courts, but they have a job to do. We have a job to do," Arpaio said. "The federal justice system also gives you the opportunity to appeal."
Tim Casey, Arpaio's lead attorney, said the decision against Arpaio's office is historic in the world of immigration law.
"It will invariably impact individual rights and law enforcement operations throughout the United States," Casey said. "It's going to be cited and relied upon for many others for a long time."
Based on reporting by The Associated Press.