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Police officers in legal minefield on Arizona's tough immigration law
PHOENIX -- The most contentious part of Arizona's immigration law finally has approval to move forward, surviving a U.S. Supreme Court ruling, a heated national debate and two years of state politics.
But the practical effect of what critics call the "show me your papers" provision remains to be seen.
Immigrants are worried they'll be harassed by officers emboldened to pull them over because they look Hispanic.
Officers -- who will be required to ask people they encounter while enforcing other laws to show they're in the county legally if they find them suspicious -- say they'll be open to lawsuits if they're accused of racially profiling, or if they're accused of not adequately enforcing the law.
"It leaves us in a very, very, very, extremely gray area," Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik said Thursday. "So now we get sued when we do profile, and we get sued if we don't profile."
Yet it may be difficult to see the results.
Parts of the law, passed by a Republican-controlled state legislature and signed by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer in 2010, have been in effect for months but largely ignored -- mostly because they seem to address problems that don't exist, immigrant rights advocates say.
Dan Pochoda, the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona's legal director, said the parts of the law known as SB1070 already in effect "have had virtually no impact." He added that "we haven't even heard of any attempts to use" the other provisions.
Those sections of the immigration law include a ban on the adoption of so-called sanctuary city policies. The rule is aimed at preventing local government officials from deciding to pick and choose which federal immigration policies to enforce and which to ignore. There have been no reported violations in the state.
Another provision says state and local agencies can't have a ban on sharing information, and therefore must cooperate in determining whether a person is a legal citizen eligible for public benefits.
Two other sections were viewed as minor changes to existing laws.
None have had any noticeable impact on how police go about their jobs.
The newly approved section of the law could be difficult to enforce, too.
Police will be required to check the status of people they encounter even investigating minor infractions, such as noise complaints. But federal immigration officials have said repeatedly they are focused on serious or repeat offenders. And local officials can't make immigration arrests or detain immigrants for too long on the side of the road.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has been one of the nation's most high-profile supporters of strict border policy, said he's most worried that law enforcement won't be able to use the new provisions. He's concerned that U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials won't support his sheriff's deputies.
"What good is it for my guys to stop people, call ICE like we always do, and ICE says, `We're not coming,"' Arpaio asked. "It's going to be very interesting to see what happens."
Tucson police Chief Roberto Villasenor said his officers will comply with the law, and contact federal officials when they encounter illegal immigrants, even though he thinks it will rarely result in an arrest.
"It's almost like an exercise in futility at this point, but under the law we are still required to contact them," he said.
But immigrant rights advocates predict that U.S. citizens will be illegally detained, and that Hispanics will be disproportionately affected.
Alessandra Soler, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, said her organization will be scrutinizing cases to be sure police don't abuse the new rule, saying that "there have been numerous sheriffs who have said they will detain people for as long as is necessary to confirm their status. The Supreme Court has already said that is out of bounds."
More than anything, it will have a chilling effect on law enforcement interaction with Hispanics, opponents say.
Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada that said such anxiety within immigrant communities will create problems for officers who have "worked very hard with community policing" and earned trust among people "regardless of their race or ethnicity or gender or economic or social situations."
He added that such fear "may be a problem. That may be an issue for law enforcement dealing with victims of crime."
The provision is expected to go into effect in about 10 days, once U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton, who affirmed the rule with her decision Wednesday, finalizes her order.