Juan Manuel Calderón Dean Knuth

Mexicans living here have lost trust in local police, and people are scared to report crimes for fear they or their family or friends may be turned over to immigration authorities, the Mexican consul in Tucson said last week.

For years, Tucson police have regularly inquired about the immigration status of people they stop, people in the car with them and people who report crimes, said Juan Manuel Calderón Jaimes, the Mexican consul in Tucson.

"In some ways, SB 1070 has been enforced in Tucson for many years," said Calderón, who has held his post since January 2004.

In late July, a federal judge stripped several key provisions from Arizona's new immigration enforcement law, including a requirement for law-enforcement officers to check the immigration status of those they have stopped for another reason.

But Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor disagrees with Calderón's assessment: His officers aren't doing anything differently than in past years.

Officers have a right to contact the Border Patrol if they come across a person during their work that they suspect is here illegally. It's left to their discretion whether to make the referral, he said.

Department policy, however, prohibits officers from investigating the immigration status of people who report crimes, Villaseñor said. That's in place to protect community safety, he said.

The Mexican Consulate is likely hearing more complaints because Arizona's new immigration law has brought more attention to the actions of officers. Some activists are prodding people to file complaints against officers when no misconduct has occurred.

Villaseñor agrees that people have become more fearful of the police, a negative result of SB 1070 and one of the main reasons he has opposed the measure.

"People's perception is what is driving this," Villaseñor said. "This is a fallout of the entire situation on immigration. It's heightened sensitivity on both sides."

There aren't figures to show if police referrals to the Border Patrol have increased or decreased. The Tucson Police Department started tracking referrals only last month, Villaseñor said.

Law enforcement is allowed under the law to ask the immigration status of people they encounter, be it a person committing a traffic infraction, somebody with them or somebody reporting a crime, said University of Arizona law professor Gabriel "Jack" Chin.

"There's no legal reason you can't investigate the immigration status of people reporting crimes," Chin said. "There's a lot of policy reasons why it's not a good idea, but no legal reason."

And while the occupants of a car stopped by police are not free to leave, they have the right to decline to answer questions, Chin said. Same goes for somebody reporting a crime, he said.

Calderón said he has lodged several complaints with Tucson police about the increased inquiries into immigration status, including an incident last month in which a Mexican man was turned over to the Border Patrol after reporting a robbery at his own apartment.

Villaseñor said he had not heard about the case.

"The basic function of the Police Department is to keep the community safe," Calderón said. "If people don't feel comfortable reporting crimes … crime is going to increase in Tucson."

During an interview this week with the Arizona Daily Star, Calderón weighed in on several border and immigration related issues:

• The deaths of nearly 2,000 people crossing the border illegally over the past decade:

"It is an issue that is on our minds all the time, especially in the summer. We continue working to prevent this, by giving our people information about what they are facing when they cross a border like Arizona-Sonora."

But his government must reach people in their hometowns in Mexico before they begin their trek north, he said, because it's difficult to convince somebody already at the border not to cross.

"People come with one idea, that they are going to cross," he said. "They have left everything behind in Mexico. They have sold things, and taken a loan or gone into debt to be able to get the border and pay the smugglers, who are charging $1,500-$3,000."

• Crossing the border has become much more dangerous in recent years:

The buildup of border enforcement and the convergence of drug- and people-smuggling by the criminal organizations have pushed illegal border crossers into more remote and dangerous areas, he said.

"Instead of it being two to three days, it's four days because they are in more difficult areas. Some have gotten lost in the desert when they hear the voice of Border Patrol agents." Calderón believes smugglers are in cahoots with bandits who assault and rob groups of illegal immigrants in the desert.

"What a coincidence that when a guide brings a group of 10-15 people they are assaulted all of a sudden and nothing ever happens to the coyote, or guide. Meanwhile, the people in the group are raped and robbed of their few belongings."

• On Mexican illegal immigrants living in the United States:

"They come to work and stay. How many millions live in the United States without documents that generate wealth for the local economy where they live, in Chicago, Dallas, Seattle, Yakima, Los Angeles? They have jobs, they buy things, pay rent, pay taxes. And the large majority never request social assistance."

• On assimilation:

Sharing a nearly 2,000-mile border with the United States allows Mexicans living in the U.S. to sustain strong family and cultural ties, he said.

"I don't doubt that this assimilation is much slower than another nationality such as a Croatian, for instance. They assimilate much faster because they don't have the contact with their people."

The assimilation is still occurring among children of Mexican parents, who often speak English better than Spanish. But the anti-Mexican climate in many parts of the country slows it down, he said.

"Mexicans living here assimilate; they integrate into American culture, but we don't lose those values that we have from our country. … We integrate into the American society, but sometimes the American society puts up barriers, simply because of our skin color, or simply because we don't speak English perfectly."

Contact reporter Brady McCombs at 573-4213 or bmccombs@azstarnet.com