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House hearing on Arpaio leaves sheriff out

WASHINGTON — House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers on Thursday led what was expected to be a hearing on the immigration enforcement tactics of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, whose flamboyant, aggressive style has made him a national figure in the debate over the role local police should play in enforcing federal law.

But after more than two hours, Arpaio’s name had been mentioned only a few times by members of Congress and eight witnesses. Instead, the hearing focused more generally on the pros and cons of a program known as 287(g), which allows city, county and state police agencies to enforce immigration law.

“I said when we announced this hearing, it is not just about Joe Arpaio,” said Conyers, D-Mich. “We are not out to get anyone. But we are out to get the truth and seek a better way forward.”

Conyers, along with fellow committee Democrats Zoe Lofgren of California, Jerry Nadler of New York and Bobby Scott of Virginia, wrote Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano earlier this year calling for an investigation into whether Arpaio and his deputies were violating Latinos’ civil rights by targeting them in traffic stops and immigration raids.

Holder has launched an investigation, and Napolitano is reviewing the program to see whether changes need to be made.

Conyers also promised hearings on Arpaio, but he seemed to downplay that Wednesday.

“Even though we’ve called for an investigation into the situation in Phoenix, this is not limited to Arizona,” Conyers said. “This is not an isolated problem.”

Further hearings are expected, though none had been scheduled as of Thursday.

Neither the Democrats nor the Republicans invited Arpaio to testify.

“They didn’t want me to appear before them because they knew I would cut them to pieces,” the sheriff said in a phone interview Wednesday. “After they shot off their mouths, they found out how much public support I’ve got.”

Democrats did invite another Arizona law enforcement official, Mesa Police Chief George Gascón, who has often clashed with Arpaio over the 287(g) program.

Gascón told House members that the program undermines local crimefighting efforts by destroying Latinos’ trust in police.

“Community policing efforts are being derailed where immigrants who fear that the police will help to deport them rely less on the local authorities and instead give thugs control of their neighborhoods,” Gascón said.

Another Arizona resident, 19-year-old Julio Cesar Mora of Avondale, told the committee that he and his 66-year-old father were confronted by Arpaio’s deputies in February as Mora drove his father to work at a landscaping service in Phoenix.

Mora said the deputies ordered them out of their car, tied their hands and detained them for three hours until Mora proved that he was a U.S. citizen and that his father was a legal resident. Mora said the deputies refused to untie his hands when he had to go to the bathroom.

“They took away our pride,” he told the panel.

Arpaio said the business was raided after sheriff’s officials got a tip the company was employing illegal immigrants to do landscaping work for the county government. He said deputies ended up arresting more than 40 felons during the raid.

Republican committee members’ main witness at Thursday’s hearing was a man whose 16-year-old daughter was killed two years ago in Virginia Beach, Va., by an illegal immigrant who was drunk and plowed into her stopped car at 70 mph. The man had been arrested previously for drunken driving but had not been charged with immigration violations or deported.

“Those who are serious about public safety should not only support the program, but also call for its expansion,” said Rep. Lamar Smith, R-Texas, the committee’s senior Republican.

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