A lengthy Star investigation published last week revealed the highly disparate approach Arizona law enforcement agencies take to enforcing state immigration law SB 1070.
Much of the original SB 1070 law was struck down by the U.S. Supreme Court. But the remaining provision requires officers to inquire about the immigration status of people they stop in the course of other suspected infractions, if they believe the individuals to be in the country illegally. That provision went into effect in September 2012.
We opposed SB 1070, and the findings of the Star’s news investigation do not change our view.
While the 13 Southern Arizona law enforcement agencies queried for data about immigration stops and work with the Border Patrol revealed a troubling dearth of data, some themes emerged:
- Crime victims and witnesses must be shielded from checks on their immigration status. The same should apply to passengers in vehicles that have been pulled over. This can be done through statute or agency policy.
- Stops must be prompted by suspicion of a criminal or civil infraction, not an officer’s assessment that a person appears to be an undocumented immigrant.
- A person’s likelihood of being reported to the Border Patrol depends on where he’s stopped. Agencies differ greatly in how they view and handle immigration stops.
- Know your rights. Police have struck up conversations with people who are not crime suspects and asked for identification. You don’t have to speak with an officer, but most people don’t know that they can walk away.
- Law enforcement should track stops, calls to Border Patrol and criteria used to determine suspicion that a person is undocumented. In response to the Star’s investigation, some agencies are already taking those steps.
Because of the mismatched enforcement among law enforcement, there’s no way to know if SB 1070 is serving as the deterrent to illegal immigration that supporters hoped it would be; and there’s no systematic data to show if people are being improperly targeted, stopped or detained.
The lack of information is purposeful, because when lawmakers passed it in 2010, they decided requiring agencies to keep such data could be seen as a burden, and cost them “yes” votes in the Legislature.
What is clear from the Star’s “State of Confusion” investigation is that some officers are doing immigration enforcement. They call Border Patrol to do the processing, but local officers start the ball rolling by approaching a suspected illegal immigrant, even when no infraction is identified in case reports.
These facts are troubling. Every dubious stop corrodes the already often tenuous relationship between law enforcement and vulnerable communities.
A powerful voice of reason comes from the South Tucson Police Department. Officer Yvonne Billotte told the Star that fears police are working with immigration authorities has had an effect on the community she has served for 12 years.
“My biggest concern with 1070 is that it takes someone who is not documented and makes him the perfect victim because they are now afraid to report crime, and it destroys that relationship with us,” she said.
“I always tell people: ‘I don’t care about your immigration status,’” Billotte said. “What I care about is people not being victimized.”
The best fix to problems with SB 1070 is comprehensive immigration reform that creates a fair and realistic path to legal status for those now in the country illegally — but it’s highly unlikely that will happen any time soon.
In the meantime, SB 1070 will remain. Changes must be made to make the enforcement reasonable, legal and proportional. Protection of local communities, not immigration violations, should be the top priority of law enforcement.