The immigration-status checks SB 1070 requires are not always as simple as a request for information sent over the radio.

More and more, police officers are surrounded by activists, many of them holding video recorders and asking a long list of questions.

Frustrated with immigration reform stalled in Congress and increased cooperation between local police and the Border Patrol, immigrant-rights activists have escalated their civil-disobedience campaign. Over the past year, routine news conferences gave way to people lying in the street before the wheels of a Border Patrol vehicle.

On Oct. 8, the campaign intensified when more than 100 activists encircled a Border Patrol vehicle holding a driver and passenger Tucson police had stopped because of an improperly lighted license plate. The protest lasted more than an hour, required the deployment of two dozen police and Border Patrol agents, and ended only after a barrage of pepper spray.

Law-enforcement officials, increasingly wary of drawing a crowd, are shifting their tactics, too. Instead of the Border Patrol showing up at the site of a traffic stop, an agent might ask police to meet at a neutral location. Agents might also show up at a traffic stop disguised in plain clothes and an unmarked car.

Some officers are taking people they have detained directly to the Border Patrol’s gated campus on South Swan Road. Others are booking people into jail if it’s an option. The jail staff checks the immigration status of everyone booked.

One month after the October protest, Tucson police stopped Alberto García, a 31-year-old day laborer from Guatemala, because a records check showed a mandatory insurance suspension on the vehicle he was driving. When the officer asked for proof of who he was, García, who had no driver’s license, showed the officer an ID issued by Southside Presbyterian Church.

García’s lack of state-issued ID and difficulty speaking English prompted the officer to call the Border Patrol to identify him, said Sgt. Chris Widmer, a Tucson Police Department spokesman.

But before a border agent arrived, a group of eight to 10 activists with a video camera arrived, knocking on the officer’s window and asking why García was being arrested, the police report said. Fearing a repeat of the October protest, he drove away with García in handcuffs, inviting the agent to follow him.

The officer and agent drove to the west-side substation, where they passed through a gate that kept activists from following. The agent confirmed García’s unauthorized status, and police decided to book him into jail for the crime of driving without a license, a violation for which people are usually cited and released.

García is out on a $1,500 immigration bond.

Chief sees safety hazard

Police are shifting their responses to protect officer safety, said William Lackey, chief of police in South Tucson, which also has been under heavy scrutiny from activists.

“You have a driver, and you have 10, 15, 20 people respond and they are not quiet, they are saying ‘police shouldn’t be here,’ ‘get out of here.’ It’s a public safety hazard,” he said.

Like Tucson police, in some cases South Tucson will transport someone suspected of being in the country illegally, especially if a crowd gathers, Lackey said.

The department is the first to be legally challenged over how it’s implementing SB 1070’s so-called “show me your papers” provision, which went into effect in September 2012. The provision requires police officers to try to check the immigration status of someone they detain for another reason if they suspect the person is in the country illegally.

In a letter the American Civil Liberties Union sent to South Tucson in November, it alleged that Alejandro Valenzuela – a 23-year-old activist with the Southside Worker Center – was “subjected to unreasonable seizure based on his actual or perceived race and ethnicity” and detained for no reason other than to check his immigration status and to transport him to federal authorities.

Police initially talked to Valenzuela when he showed up at a domestic-violence investigation involving one of his friends, and they asked him not to interfere. Officers then asked for his identification while he was sitting in the passenger seat of a nearby parked car.

Though they didn’t charge him with a state or local crime, South Tucson police drove Valenzuela first to their offices, then to Border Patrol headquarters. There, he was detained for about five hours until someone was able to bring documents showing his eligibility for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.

The city is negotiating with the ACLU to try to avoid litigation, said South Tucson’s attorney, Andrea de Castillo, who also has an independent immigration law practice.

Lackey couldn’t speak about the claim, but he said South Tucson officers “don’t mess with undocumented people unless they have to.” That makes the department one of the most lenient in dealing with illegal immigration issues, he said.

He couldn’t substantiate that statement with numbers because the department is only now working on a system to classify incidents of this type. When the Arizona Daily Star requested cases where officers had referred people to the Border Patrol, the department could provide only one record for a three-year period.

on a nickname basis

Since he took over as chief more than a year ago, Lackey has worked to improve public perceptions of police.

He launched a “revisit” program in which officers follow up with people they come in contact with, especially crime victims, and document those visits. He also bought two electric golf carts for day-shift officers to use to make themselves more approachable.

Officer Yvonne Billotte can often be found waving from the seat of a golf cart. Building community relationships is what she is all about.

During a recent shift, her first stop was at Food City to check up on an employee who was assaulted by shoplifters the previous night.

“Hello! Good morning, my dear,” she greeted an employee at the grocery store. “How is he doing? Is his jaw still bothering him?”

The employee who was assaulted was not there, but she gave a co-worker a victim’s rights card and told him to call her any time.

“Bye, hon — see you later!” she called as she accelerated.

For her, the recipe for a good relationship between the community and police is treating people with dignity and respect, just as her father, also a police officer, taught her. SB 1070 worries the 12-year department veteran, for whom South Tucson residents have an array of nicknames ranging from “Red” to “Lolly.”

“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.

Billotte keeps that in mind as she patrols the 1.5 square miles of South Tucson, waving at every neighbor and every kid playing outside, pausing especially to ask the city’s eldest residents how they are doing.

“I always tell people: ‘I don’t care about your immigration status,’” she said. “What I care about is people not being victimized.”

Required viewing

Arizona law-enforcement officers were required to watch a training video created by AZPOST, the state’s peace-officer certification board, before SB 1070 went into effect.

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The video contains a list of factors officers can use to develop reasonable suspicion that a person is in the country illegally — a threshold that, if met, now requires a call to immigration authorities.

Among the factors: not speaking English, not having a U.S.-issued ID card, wearing multiple layers and carrying a backpack.

But South Tucson has lots of homeless people who often don’t have IDs and often carry backpacks. It also is home to families who have been in the United States for generations but have members who don’t speak English.

“Everyone is so concerned with the negative aspects of the law that they are not looking at (the actions of) individual agencies or officers,” Billotte said. “The longer we keep telling people all officers want to deport you, the longer we allow for these people to be potentially victimized.”

The department saw a drop in the number of calls it received after SB 1070 took effect, a trend Lackey said he’s trying to reverse.

But repairing the trust damaged by SB 1070 will take a lot of effort, said Raúl Alcaraz-Ochoa, a local activist and spokesman for the Protection Network Coalition, formed to support people who are at risk of being deported because of the law.

The group’s ultimate goal is to end what it calls “poli-migra,” the close cooperation between local police and Border Patrol. But Alcaraz-Ochoa acknowledges that could take a while.

In the meantime, he wants to continue pushing for local policy changes — among them, police no longer questioning passengers about their immigration status, and citing and releasing drivers with questionable immigration status if they are stopped for a minor traffic violation.

Skewed relationships

Although Tucson’s City Council and police chief have vocally opposed SB 1070, they’ve been slow to respond to local demands for clearer policies.

Of Southern Arizona agencies, the Tucson Police Department has gotten the loudest public criticism for how it interpreted and implemented SB 1070 — yet it took the scene of the October protest for activists’ recommendations to begin to gain traction.

The City Council held a study session in November about the law’s effects on community trust and how police can comply in a way that does the least damage.

SB 1070 “puts local law enforcement in positions they shouldn’t be in; it puts us at odds with elements in our community,” TPD Chief Roberto Villaseñor said. “It’s not the relationship we want to have with the community.”

After the meeting, he tweaked the agency’s policies to emphasize that officers focus on suspects, not the immigration status of victims or witnesses; require the presence of a parent or guardian to question a juvenile on immigration status; and try to find alternatives to towing a vehicle when possible.

Activists urge clearer directives and blanket prohibitions on immigration checks in other scenarios, but Villaseñor told a crowd during a forum in January that the department can’t go further than it already it has without risking a lawsuit.

TPD is one of just a few agencies that interpreted SB 1070 to require an immigration-status check on everyone arrested — regardless of whether an officer suspects unauthorized status — because Villaseñor is afraid of being seen as too lax. Of the departments the Star reviewed, it had the most extensive SB 1070 training program.

But that’s not the answer to illegal immigration, Villaseñor said. The way he sees it, the solution to the challenges posed by SB 1070 is comprehensive reform, not more police action.

“We want the people who are here illegally, who are involved in criminal activity, to be deported — no question,” he said. “But to make us pseudo agents of federal immigration, I don’t think that’s right.”

Contact reporter Perla Trevizo at

573-4213 or

and reporter Carli Brosseau at 573-4197