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Arizona law on immigration puts police in tight spot

By Peter Slevin
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 30, 2010; A01

TUCSON -- Every day, as Sgt. Russ Charlton patrols the south side of Tucson, he encounters a wide range of this city's residents -- legal, illegal, native-born, naturalized, just passing through. To him, their immigration status is largely irrelevant. "People are just people," Charlton said.

But in a city less than an hour's drive from the Mexican border, Charlton and his fellow officers suddenly are at the center of a roiling immigration debate, and Arizona's new and controversial immigration law is almost certain to transform how they do their job.

"We're way too busy," Charlton said of the law's requirement that police officers question anyone they reasonably suspect of being in the country illegally. "We don't have enough officers on the street to look for other stuff like that. If they're not doing anything, they're just being normal people. Why would I do that?"

Supporters view the law as a common-sense tactic to drive away some of the state's estimated 450,000 illegal immigrants and deter others from coming. Opponents foresee harassment, racial profiling and fear. The police find themselves in the middle.

"We are in a tenuous position as law enforcement," Tucson Police Chief Roberto A. Villaseñor said, noting that the law allows citizens to sue police agencies that do not enforce it. "No matter which way we go, there are lawsuits in the wings. The ones who are going to get beaten up on this most are the law enforcement agencies."

Although some police groups have endorsed the law, a Tucson patrolman on Thursday sued Arizona to block it. Martin Escobar, acting on his own, argued that enforcing the law would impede criminal investigations and violate the U.S. Constitution.

A Latino religious consortium also filed suit, while national civil liberties organizations prepared a separate challenge and the Justice Department continued to consider one. An array of opponents pushed for an economic boycott of the state and planned nationwide protests on Saturday, even as politicians in several other states called for similar laws.

On Capitol Hill, partly in response to the Arizona law, Senate Democrats introduced a "framework" for an immigration bill designed to strengthen security along the 2,000-mile border with Mexico and create a path to legalization for millions of undocumented immigrants in the country. House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said there is "not a chance" that Congress will pass an immigration bill this year.

Police consider Tucson, a city of 550,000, a way station for drugs and people headed north. Immigration politics have always been complicated here, pitting those who say undocumented migrants bring crime and tax burdens against those who say welcoming them is a matter of social justice.

The day after the Arizona legislature approved the bill, the police headquarters was flooded with phone calls. A typical complaint, according to Villaseñor, was this: "Hey, there are some Mexicans standing on the corner? You need to check them out."

The police chief considered the requests "ridiculous" because "a lot of people stand on street corners." Villaseñor, a Tucson native who joined the police force in 1980 and became chief last year, said he understands the frustrations but objects to the law on several levels.

"Too many vagaries," he said. He said that he doubts there is a law officer "anywhere in the state of Arizona" who can accurately describe how to enforce the measure and that he fears it will lead to racial profiling, despite the law's prohibition of the practice.

"It says you can't use race and ethnicity. If you're not paying attention to race and ethnicity, what other elements are there?" Villaseñor asked. "If it's 95 percent based on race and ethnicity, what's the other 5 percent? No one knows."

Villaseñor said he is confident in his department's professionalism. While he described the agency as a microcosm of society, inevitably employing a small number of biased officers, he said, "I don't think you have police officers frothing at the bit to go out and do racial profiling."

President Obama, who brokered an effort to curb racial profiling as an Illinois state senator, warned that the law could lead to civil rights violations, and he urged Congress to pass an immigration bill to keep other states from enacting similar measures.

Gov. Jan Brewer (R) said racial profiling will play no part in enforcement, and she promised strong training. "We have to trust law enforcement," she said.

She said Arizona had little choice but to act because the federal government has failed to address immigration concerns. Some advocates say the law will give police a powerful tool in a state deeply affected by the growing ranks of the undocumented.

"It takes a proactive approach to illegal immigration instead of allowing an illegal alien to commit another crime first," said Mark Spencer, president of the Phoenix Law Enforcement Association, which represents 2,500 detectives and patrol officers.

Charlton, the police sergeant, supervises patrol officers in a sprawling, heavily Hispanic working-class section of Tucson. After 30 years on the force, he said his job is "to investigate crimes and help people who need help."

During a recent shift, between responding to a traffic accident and to a report of a man brandishing a gun, he considered the effect of the new law. Although he acknowledges that the law provides a potential law enforcement tool, he worries that people who need assistance or could help solve a crime would hesitate to call police.

Charlton also wonders where undocumented immigrants arrested under the new law would be jailed. Then there are questions about paperwork and prosecution and the coordination among local and federal agencies.

"With our current staffing, that's a lot more to ask," he said. "It sounds like there's a lot of logistics that have to be figured out."

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