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Investigation of Arizona Sherriff's Questionable Practices Results from Advocacy

A March 10, 2009, letter from Loretta King, Acting Assistant to the Attorney General in Washington, DC, to Sheriff Joe Arpaio in Phoenix, AZ, held the news activists had been hoping for:

Dear Sheriff Arpaio:

This is to inform you that the United States Department of Justice is commencing an investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff' s Office... Our investigation will focus on alleged patterns or practices of discriminatory police practices... unconstitutional searches and seizures... and... allegations of national origin discrimination.... [see full text (PDF)]

The letter came after a month of organizing, demonstrating, and speaking out by activists and advocates across the nation. For those who took the time to sign the petition, march in Phoenix, say a prayer, or ask what they might do, there was a sense that finally, justice was being done in Arizona.

Sherriff Arpaio has long been known for his ethically dubious actions in law enforcement. On February 4, he ordered an escort of fifty armed guards, canines, and a helicopter to march two hundred immigrants dressed in black and white stripes through the public streets of Phoenix. The marchers' end destination was a "tent city" where they were segregated from the rest of the inmate population.

Over the next several weeks, 38,000 individuals, including more than 150 Unitarian Universalists (UUs), signed a petition decrying Arpaio's abuse of his authority. Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix wrote an eloquent call to UUs to become involved, and the Unitarian Universalist Association (UUA) wrote a letter to Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano calling for the 287(g) agreement with Maricopa County that enabled Arpaio's abuses to be rescinded.

"287(g)s," as they're commonly referred to, are agreements between the Department of Homeland Security and local law enforcement that deputizes the latter to enforce immigration laws. It is an unfortunate truth that the 287(g) program, which was intended to counteract serious crime like drug smuggling and human trafficking, has enabled the profiling and persecution of immigrant communities. 66 signatories, including 21 national organizations and UU social action committees in Arizona, Kentucky, Maryland, and Massachusetts, supported the letter calling for this act to be rescinded. See the letter to Napolitano with signatories (PDF).

On Saturday, February 28, about 5,000 people, including 40 members of the Unitarian Universalist Congregation of Phoenix (UUCP) and 10 members of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Tucson (UUCT), gathered in Phoenix for a march and rally coordinated by the National Day Laborer Organizing Network. Some marchers wore black and white striped shirts in solidarity with the immigrants who had been publicly shamed by Sherriff Arpaio. Marchers carried signs that read, "Reform, Not Raids," and "We Are Human." At the plaza in front of the federal courthouse in Phoenix, speeches were made by United Methodist Bishop Minerva Carcaño, "Rage Against the Machine" frontman Zack de la Rocha, Derechos Humanos coalition co-chair Isabel García, and others.

Three days later, on March 3, the Government Accountability Office released a report citing deep flaws in the 287(g) program that could result in "misuse of authority." The next day, a Congressional Hearing on the 287(g) program was held. Following the hearing, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) announced that they would rewrite the 287(g) program to address the concerns raised in the Government Accountability Report.

Alone, either one—the Department of Justice's decision to investigate Arpaio, or ICE's decision to rewrite 287(g)—would have been an enormous success. Together, they signalled the beginning of what immigrants' rights advocates hope will be a shift in our nation's policies regarding immigrants, leading ultimately to just and humane comprehensive immigration reform.

For all the promise of a 287(g) rewrite, it may be months before proposed changes are finalized and enforced so that racial profiling and other abuses are prevented. In the meantime, advocates all over the U.S. are working to suspend current 287(g) agreements and block news ones until the rewrites are in place.

Racial Justice

For more information contact web @ uua.org.

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Last updated on Thursday, June 3, 2010.

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Social Action Committee of the UU Congregation of Phoenix.


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The number of marchers at the rally decrying Arpaio's actions was estimated to be around 5,000.


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Members of the UU Church of Tucson traveled to Phoenix to participate in the march.

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