You've heard a lot about the Justice Department's lawsuit to stop the new Arizona immigration law. But that's just one part of the Obama administration's multi-front war on immigration enforcement in Arizona.
In addition to the drive to kill the new law, Attorney General Eric Holder is also suing the Maricopa Community College system in Phoenix, alleging it broke the law by requiring a job seeker to provide a green card before being hired. And on Thursday the Justice Department filed suit against the Maricopa County Sheriff's office, run by the flamboyant Joe Arpaio, as part of an extended investigation into alleged civil rights violations there.
Despite the splash of attention from the newest lawsuit, the Justice Department's investigation of Arpaio could end badly for Holder. When the Department first informed Arpaio that a probe was under way, back in March 2009, it sent a letter saying the investigation would focus on “alleged patterns or practices of discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures.” But now we learn that just six months before that, in September 2008, the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, known as ICE, did its own investigation of Arpaio's office — and gave it a clean bill of health. Arpaio's lawyers recently got a copy of the ICE report through the Freedom of Information Act.
ICE officials evaluated how the sheriff's office performed under a law that allows specially trained local law enforcement officers to enforce parts of federal immigration law. The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, which is the largest sheriff's office in the Arizona, has 189 officers who have been trained by ICE to enforce federal immigration statutes.
The report, crammed with acronyms and bureaucratese, is not light reading. But struggle through it, and the key sentence is this: “The OI and DRO supervisors consider the conduct and performance of the MCSO … officers to be professional and meeting the requirement of the MOA.” Translated, that means officials from the Homeland Security Department's Office of Investigation (OI), along with officials from the Detention and Removal Operations office (DRO), concluded that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO), in its handling of illegal immigrants, acted in a professional manner and complied with a memorandum of agreement (MOA) under which the government gave them the authority to enforce federal law. That agreement included a ban on racial profiling.
ICE investigators also interviewed top federal officials involved in illegal immigrant cases in Arizona. They found an “excellent” working relationship between the sheriff's office and the feds. ICE talked as well to federal prosecutors in Phoenix, who described the cases brought by Maricopa County as “high quality.”
In all, it's a quite positive assessment of an operation that just six months later would come under the Justice Department's microscope for alleged civil rights violations. It also lends indirect support to Arpaio's contention that the Justice Department investigation is politically motivated.
A tidbit of information contained in other government documents released under the Freedom of Information Act also suggests politics may be involved. Arpaio's lawyers found a March 11, 2009, e-mail, sent just after the Justice Department investigation was announced, from an ICE employee to John P. Torres, then the acting assistant secretary of ICE. “Did you see this?” the e-mail said, attaching a news report on the investigation. “Yes,” Torres responded a few minutes later. “Interesting politics at play.”
What happens now? It's been nearly a year and a half since the investigation began, and the Justice Department has not charged the sheriff's office with violating anyone's civil rights. Instead, Thursday's lawsuit goes after Arpaio for allegedly failing to cooperate fully in the probe.
“It's a totally political lawsuit,” says Bob Driscoll, a former Bush Justice Department Civil Rights Division official who is representing Arpaio. “They want to find evidence of discrimination, but all they're finding is evidence of law enforcement that includes immigration enforcement.” (The Justice Department did not respond to a request for comment.)
Failing to find proof of real discrimination in Maricopa County could ultimately doom the administration's entire crusade in Arizona. The much-publicized suit against the new immigration law is based on the possibility that it might result in future discrimination, but at the same time the department is struggling to find evidence of civil rights violations in Arpaio's office, which uses enforcement techniques similar to those outlined in the new law. There's a real chance that in the end Obama's war on Arizona will come to nothing.
Byron York, The Examiner's chief political correspondent, can be contacted at email@example.com. His column appears on Tuesday and Friday, and his stories and blogposts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.