Wednesday, May 10, 2006

Tired of waiting for the federal government to secure the U.S.-Mexico border, an Arizona sheriff has assigned a 100-member posse and sworn deputies to troll his 9,226-square-mile county for illegal aliens.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio — known as “America’s toughest cop” because he puts inmates in pink underwear, works them in chain gangs and feeds them bologna sandwiches — is targeting the illegals under an anti-smuggling law that state lawmakers passed nine months ago to fight drug trafficking.

Sheriff Arpaio told The Washington Times yesterday that he intends to use the new law to lock up “alien smugglers and their customers” and to send a message to those in Mexico and elsewhere seeking to enter the United States illegally.

“My message is clear: If you come here and I catch you, you’re going straight to jail,” he said. “We’re going to arrest any illegal who violates this new law, and I’m not going to turn these people over to federal authorities so they can have a free ride back to Mexico. I’ll give them a free ride to my jail.”

The unpaid posse members, many of whom are retired deputies and other former law-enforcement personnel, along with the sworn officers, are targeting the county’s southern desert backcountry, which has become the nation’s most popular immigration smuggling corridor. So far, Sheriff Arpaio said, 146 illegals have been taken into custody.

More than half of the 1.15 million illegal aliens apprehended last year by the U.S. Border Patrol were caught in Arizona. Maricopa County, whose county seat is Phoenix, has become a major route into the United States and a haven for “safe houses,” where illegals await transportation to other areas of the country.

The law, which went into effect in August, makes smuggling a felony and gives the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office — according to a ruling by County Attorney Andrew P. Thomas — the authority to jail illegals for conspiring to smuggle themselves into the United States. Those convicted face up to 30 months in prison.

Most illegal aliens whom the Border Patrol detains are Mexicans and are returned to their country almost immediately. Many try to re-enter the country illegally. The felony designation means they will not be returned automatically if caught again.

“I believe the law is clear,” Mr. Thomas told The Times yesterday. “We have a new coyote statute that makes human smuggling a crime, and the state conspiracy statute clearly applies to that.”

Mr. Thomas accused the Mexican government of trying to dismantle the law by hiring U.S. attorneys to challenge it.

In a “letter of protest” Tuesday to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, he said Mexico was “interfering in the internal affairs of Arizona” and called on the State Department to “help bring to the attention of the Mexican government that this concerted attempt to undermine American law against illegal immigration is outrageous and must be thwarted.”

Los Angeles lawyer Peter A. Schey, at the request of the Mexican Consulate in Phoenix, filed a motion in Maricopa County Superior Court saying the county lacked arrest authority under the new law and called for the charges to be dismissed. The motion will be heard Tuesday by Maricopa Superior Court Judge Thomas O’Toole.

Mr. Schey, president and executive director of the Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law Foundation, did not return calls yesterday for comment.

Mr. Thomas said that if the motion is successful, “the citizens of the state of Arizona will be deprived of their right to uphold public order and to protect themselves against the Mexican government’s systematic, unlawful export of humanity into the state.”

He said the Mexican government “encourages those who are unhappy with political, economic and social conditions” in that country to flee to the United States “to seek unlawful employment here and to send back to Mexico an estimated $16 billion.”

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