House committee to check for civil rights violations
WASHINGTON – A House committee chairman said Wednesday he’ll hold a hearing next month on alleged civil rights abuses by a high-profile Arizona sheriff.
Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers said at a news conference that he will hold a hearing examining the conduct of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been conducting sweeps in Hispanic neighborhoods in the Phoenix area that have resulted in the arrests of illegal immigrants.
A spokesman for Conyers, D-Mich., said the hearing later this year is also expected to examine other examples from around the country of alleged abuses of a program that allows local police departments to enforce federal immigration laws.
“We’re not trying to persecute or take advantage of anybody,” Conyers said. “Law enforcement officers have a very important and valuable function. The problem is they can’t interpret the law their own way to harass or use racial strategies to determine who they arrest.”
He was joined at the news conference by Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., chairman of the committee’s civil rights subcommittee; Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz.; and Mary Rose Wilcox, the lone Democrat on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors, as well as representatives from several civil rights and Hispanic advocacy organizations.
The Justice Department’s civil rights division said in a letter to Arpaio this week that he is under investigation for an alleged pattern of discriminatory police practices and of discrimination based on national origin.
The letter offers no specific allegations. But Arpaio said he believes the investigation was spurred by his department’s often controversial efforts to combat illegal immigration in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix.
The investigation and the congressional hearing are “saying to the country and the people of Arizona that no one is above the law,” Grijalva said.
Arpaio’s department has aggressively pursued investigations under Arizona’s employer sanctions law and a state anti-smuggling law.
The smuggling law was designed to help local police fight smugglers, but an interpretation by Maricopa County’s top prosecutor opened the door for Arpaio’s deputies to arrest people who pay smugglers and accuse them of being co-conspirators. No other police agency or prosecutor’s office in Arizona has used that legal approach in enforcing the smuggling law.
Recently, Arpaio began to separate illegal immigrants from other inmates in Tent City, a section of the county jail where all inmates are housed in tents.
His tactics have attracted national attention and have led some critics, including immigration activists, to accuse Arpaio’s department of racial profiling.
The sheriff said he will cooperate with the Justice Department.
Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, the prosecutor who for years has collaborated with Arpaio in cracking down on illegal immigration, said Wednesday that he wasn’t aware of any racial profiling in Arpaio’s crime and immigration sweeps.
“He has drawn a lot of criticism (for his immigration crackdowns) and a lot of protest because he is willing to be a leader in the fight against illegal immigration,” Thomas said. “I think that has to be recognized here.”