Meltdown Pot

Posted June 10, 2010 in Feature Story

The Inland Empire and other areas of the Southwest may be on the verge of being swept into police state paranoia. This frenzy is led by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the proof is in the passage of the Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act. The anti-illegal immigration bill—more commonly known as SB 1070—was signed into law by the Republican governor of Arizona to provide cover for the self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” The U.S. Justice Department is currently investigating Arpaio for racial profiling connected to his deputies’ “crime suppression sweeps” in brown-skinned neighborhoods.


But Arizona’s racial-profiling disaster is spilling over into the Inland Empire as local law enforcement agencies stand ready to adopt Arpaio’s tactics and homegrown activists begin to battle such discriminatory practices in their Latino neighborhoods . . . and beyond.


The New Operation Wetback

Arpaio-style police actions are rooted in the dark past when “Operation Wetback” and other unconstitutional means to identify and deport undocumented workers from Mexico were legitimized in climates of fear. In 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower ordered ID checkpoints and systematic sweeps of Spanish-speaking neighborhoods in California and Arizona that resulted in 50,000 arrests. The campaign then was spearheaded by the U.S. Border Patrol and combined county and city police agencies to conduct stings. It spread north to Utah, Nevada and Idaho before it swept down to Texas and the fiercest political opposition.


Even U.S.-born children were sent to Mexico.


Similar tactics—and worse—are used by Maricopa County deputies and their volunteer posse units in Phoenix and the rural back roads near the Mexican border. Police on the beat stay vigilant for arguably questionable ethnic indicators that can be seen or heard and use them to determine a person’s citizenship status. “Probable cause” can be reduced to a bumper sticker and “reasonable suspicion” to an occupation or a particular (read: brown) section of town.


Guilty By Tejano Hat

On Feb. 11 last year, Julian Mora took his normal route to work at Handyman Maintenance Inc. in southern Phoenix. Mora, who has been a legal resident of the United States for over 30 years, was driving with his 19-year-old Arizona-born son, Julio. The father observed all traffic laws as he took the Durango exit on Interstate 17 and made his way to the intersection of Hilton and 19th.


The father noticed two Maricopa County Sheriff’s deputies in SUVs parked on Hilton; police were watching him and his son. As both men appeared to be Latino and the elder Mora wore a Mexican Tejano hat, what happened next wasn’t surprising.


According to testimony filed in a criminal complaint against the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office filed in the U.S. District Court of Arizona, after Mora made a right-hand turn on 19th, two police vehicles forced him to stop.


Mora was a mere 100 yards away from the entrance to his work.


A deputy came to the driver-side window and asked Mora where he was headed. Mora told the deputy he was going to work and provided a valid Arizona driver’s license when ordered to do so. The deputy immediately ordered the pair out of the vehicle. An unidentified deputy or member of the county police posse unit came from the rear unit to help frisk and “zip-tie” the son.


“Heavy Guarded Armed Camp”

The father asked why they were being arrested, but no answers were given. Instead both were taken to the parking lot at Mora’s workplace. The Sheriff’s  Human Smuggling Unit was in the middle of a worksite sting. Most of the employees at H.M.I. appeared to be Latino and none of them wore the official identification badges they were required to wear. Some argued that the police action was an effort to silence critics of Sheriff Arpaio on the county’s Board of Supervisors. The county has already paid over $40 million to settle alleged misconduct under Arpaio’s leadership.


The criminal complaint describes the parking lot as a “heavily guarded armed camp, with nearly as many uniformed sheriff’s personnel as detainees.” Some deputies wore masks and carried semiautomatic rifles. The father and son were herded into two long lines with other H.M.I. employees for interrogation and ordered not to speak or use their cell phones. Mora—who is diabetic and in his mid-60s—needed to use the restroom, but his requests were denied numerous times.


Three hours of waiting and interviews later, he was finally allowed the indignity of going behind a car to urinate. Then Mora and his son were released.

Mora’s complaint alleges that they were denied their constitutional rights granted under the 4th and 14th Amendments. Another lawsuit details an Arpaio crime suppression sweep that resulted in a brother and sister being pulled over at gunpoint when a deputy heard Spanish-language music coming from their car.


Rounding Up the Posse

The Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office is responsible for the highest number of 287(g) detentions in the nation. The ticker on the county police website and in the visitor lobby at the tent city jail claim responsibility for nearly 35,000 cases. The number has continued to rise even after the Department of Justice investigation started and the federal cash that poured in for the community task force dried up. The Sheriff’s Office decided to train his entire 900-person force and volunteer posse units as immigration officers and forge forward with his plans.


The decision has made Deputy Chief Paul Chagolla a very busy man. A small group of protesters with energy left over from the Memorial Day weekend of action are staged in front of the entrance to his work. Upstairs on the 19th floor, community leaders, students, documentary filmmakers and reporters pack the elevator lobby in front of the security doors that lead to the Sheriff’s headquarters. It took me five hours to get into his office; his boss keeps calling him on the landline and a secretary has messages from him also.


Operational Capability

We have a brief chat about the history of 287(g) in Maricopa County and then I have questions about the newly trained immigration deputies. In particular I am interested in the indicators used to make the initial police contact in the field. I am told that the training is to remain internal. Typical.


I am told the Arizona’s state Constitution empowers volunteers to serve on a police posse unit with the same privileges as any other peace officer in the state. The right is guaranteed as long as the person acts under direction of a deputy in the field. It was typical for multiple units to be called up for worksite raids and crime suppression stings.


There are over 50 volunteer units formed including a trio in the special forces, special operation and special projects police posse units.

When I ask about SB 1070, Chagolla is confident that when it officially becomes law at the end of July it will enhance the operational capability of the agency. It is time for me to go. The boss needs to talk.


Making Cops Into Feds

For years, 287(g)—part of the federal Immigration and Nationality Act—was the heel on the boot deputies pressed to the neck of Latinos in the Phoenix metropolitan area. The program was born under the Clinton administration but not used until after 9/11. It allows beat cops to train as immigration officers and work in jails or on a task force in the community in a role typically reserved for a federal agent.


It was meant to target high-risk foreign-born criminals or potential terrorist prospects for removal from the country. Instead, Maricopa County was able to rake in $20 million for 287(g) training that allowed about 160 of Arpaio’s deputies to, critics say, terrorize brown-skinned citizens on their way to work or the corner store.


Both the San Bernardino and Riverside County Sheriff’s office have 287(g) deputies. But unlike Maricopa County, this type of immigration authority has typically been reserved for the jails. Federal guidelines allow trained 287(g) deputies to interview inmates on unrelated charges in an effort to determine their citizenship status and tag them for deportation.


Driving While Brown

The Fontana Police Department currently employ ID checkpoints—an echo of Arpaio’s methods—to generate arrests, ostensibly from DUI suspects, but human rights activists and advocates say the checkpoints amount to fishing expeditions that target Latinos, the so-called “Driving While Brown” syndrome Arizona residents decry. 


The checkpoints are typically staged along Fontana’s Sierra Avenue, a part of the city with the highest percentage of Spanish speakers. Locals claim that police officials alert English-language media about the checkpoints—but make no effort to disseminate the information in Spanish or to Spanish-language news outlets. The checkpoints are expected to continue.


Activists in Moreno Valley and Pomona, among other IE communities, have also blasted similar checkpoints for similar reasons; that they are a means of racially profiling immigrants and Latinos. In March, activist Victoria Baca gave the Moreno Valley City Council 17,000 signatures of people who opposed the checkpoints. Such checkpoints—which have also involved federal immigration officials—have also been instituted in Perris and Canyon Lake.


Worse, the San Bernardino County Sheriff’s Department is under pressure from the deputies’ union to adapt measures similar to those in Maricopa County. The powerful political action committee with deep pockets endorsed Sheriff Rod Hoops, the incumbent who was voted back into office this week.


Unjust Laws

Protests over SB 1070 and 287(g) actions have echoed locally. Demonstrators gathered at Pomona College last month when Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano (Arizona’s governor from 2003-2009) gave the commencement address.


“I know many people who are citizens, and some who are not, [who] are suffering because of unjust laws,” says Sergio Aguilar. The Ontario-based activist is a leader in a group that belongs to the May 16th Coalition. The event was part of an ongoing effort to spotlight the increase of 287(g) cases in the Inland Empire under Napolitano’s leadership.


Just a couple of weeks ago, coalition members boarded buses to Maricopa County to protest. 


In Fontana, activist and mayoral candidate Bobbi Jo Chavarria addressed 287(g) and racial profiling issues before the City Council—but was met with taunts and disrespect by the elected officials. City Council Member Frank Scialdone told the former ACORN organizer that her efforts were not a problem as long as she did not try and open a brothel. Scialdone takes pride in the training program he oversaw to prevent racial profiling during his tenure as Fontana’s police chief.


“Go Back To Mexico”

Not that it helped with tensions in the community. I talked with a resident who wished to remain anonymous who filed a complaint with the police department in ’03 when Scialdone was chief. She claims she and her son were targets of racial profiling when both were pulled over for speeding and her son asked to look at the radar gun to verify the claim. Instead the officer called for backup and attempted to get the son out of the car.


The mother and son, both Latino, were eventually free to go, but the woman alleges that an officer called her and her son “wetbacks” and told them to “go back to Mexico.” The third-generation American says she reported the incident immediately to police. To date, nothing has come of her complaint.


Additionally, Fontana Mayor Mark Nuaimi recently warned Chavarria that anyone attempting to speak on SB 1070 or 287(g) during a council meeting would be shut down. Fontana’s leadership appears to not have a problem with racial profiling, suggesting that those who claim otherwise are simply race baiters.

But that conclusion is far too pat for some.


“This is the moment to step up and defend the rights of those who cannot defend themselves,” Ontario activist Aguilar says.


Photo by Tony Blei Photography


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