Even the people who would be charged with enforcing Arizona's controversial new immigration law can't agree on the question of whether it's a good idea.
The law takes effect Thursday — but only after a last-minute judicial ruling that blocks some of its most controversial provisions, including the requirement that officers check a person's immigration status while enforcing other laws if they have reason to suspect that person is in the country illegally.
According to The Associated Press, U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton today put that part of the law on hold while courts consider challenges to its legality. She also put on hold provisions requiring that immigrants carry their status papers at all times and barring undocumented workers from soliciting work in public places, the AP says.
The Arizona Sheriffs' Association supports the law and the controversial provision about checking a suspect's immigration status, saying it will give deputies needed tools to combat crimes associated with illegal immigration, such as human smuggling.
"If we can remove them from the community with an immigration charge, we'll do the community a favor," says Cochise County Sheriff Larry A. Dever.
But rank-and-file opinion is mixed and many police chiefs — inside the state and around the country — say the law would prove a costly distraction. "It drives a wedge between us and the community, where we have to get our information," says Roberto Villasenor, Tucson's chief of police.
Race As A Factor
Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed the law, known as Senate Bill 1070, in April, saying that the state had been overwhelmed by an influx of illegal immigrants and could no longer wait for Congress to address the issue. That is the argument numerous states have made in recent years in passing dozens, if not hundreds, of laws relating to immigration.
But none has gone so far as Arizona. The Justice Department has sued to block SB 1070, arguing that it infringes on federal authority over immigration matters. Several immigrant and civil rights groups have sued as well, saying it will inevitably lead to abuses such as racial profiling.
Supporters of the law dismiss such concerns, noting that it specifically precludes local law enforcement officers from using race or national origin as a factor in determining whether they suspect someone of being an illegal immigrant.
Police and sheriffs can't stop people to question them based solely on immigration concerns, but once they are investigating other violations they are required, if suspicious, to check.
Dever, the Cochise County sheriff, says the law will aid law enforcement officers in dealing with serious criminals — notably those who cross the border repeatedly with impunity.
"This gives cops tools to get these guys off the streets," says Ira Mehlman, media director for the Federation for American Immigration Reform, which supports SB 1070 and stricter immigration laws in general. "They may not be able to prove a felony just yet, but if they can get a guy off the street before he commits a crime, that works to the benefit of the community."
Breaking A Bond?
But the potential ill effect on community relations is something many police chiefs are warning about. If people come to fear the approach of law enforcement officers, they say, individuals are less likely to come forward with information about crimes.
"Any beat cop will tell you that the No. 1 asset in preventing crimes or apprehending criminals is cooperation from the community," says Antonio Gonzalez, president of the William C. Velasquez Institute, which conducts policy research on Latino issues. "When that bond is broken, it's difficult to recover."
The other specter that SB 1070's opponents raise concerns racial profiling. The law's potential for triggering civil rights violations has already provided fodder for lawsuits — and will lead to more once it actually takes effect.
"Without a doubt, we're going to be accused of racial profiling on this, no matter what we do," Villasenor, the Tucson police chief, says in a training video sent to officers throughout the state.
The video, produced by the Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training Board, seeks to guide officers on ways to avoid racial profiling. But SB 1070's critics say it treads awfully close to the line anyway.
"Even though the law says that racial profiling is not to take place, the reality is that it's going to be very difficult for officers to aggressively enforce the law without crossing the line," says San Francisco Police Chief George Gascon, who previously headed the police department in Mesa, Ariz.
Factors that officers may consider when enforcing the law include inability to speak English; avoiding eye contact; traveling in a crowded vehicle; and wearing layers of clothing in hot weather, which suggests chilly desert crossings at night.
Dever, a sheriff whose county shares borders with Mexico and New Mexico, says that simple demographics will determine who is most likely to be charged under SB 1070. "Most of the people we encounter in the drug smuggling and human smuggling trades are of Mexican nationality. Most of the people we arrest are going to be Mexican," he says. "Is there anything racist about it?"
Does ICE Have The Capacity?
Assuming SB 1070 works as intended and local law enforcement agencies detain more illegal immigrants, that raises the question of what will be done with them. Sheriffs and police already complain that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement can barely handle the caseload it now has, leading many illegal immigrants to languish in local jails — or be released.
ICE officials have told local law enforcement officials that, at best, they have the capacity to deport 400,000 individuals a year. Last year, they deported 387,790.
"We don't always take action on every individual that's referred to us," says Gillian M. Brigham, an ICE spokeswoman. "In a world of limited resources, we have to prioritize."
A Rock And A Hard Place
Police chiefs worry not only about how likely the feds will be to take a rising number of illegal immigrants off their hands and out of their facilities, but whether the law will prove a further drain on their resources owing to the need to defend against legal challenges.
Whatever its potential benefits, it's clear that SB 1070 places local law enforcement between a rock and a hard place. The law gives any citizen standing to sue if he or she feels that local police or sheriffs are not enforcing the law with sufficient vigor. On the other hand, strict enforcement will be bait for further lawsuits alleging racial profiling.
The one thing critics and supporters of the law seem to be able to agree upon, in fact, is that it will offer a field day for lawyers.
"Because of the posture of our own Department of Justice," says Dever, the Cochise County sheriff, "with the federal government threatening to file suit against officers for civil rights violations, you know there's going to be a flurry of those complaints."