PHOENIX (By Judi Villa, Arizona Republic) December 13, 2007 — A Mexican citizen who is legally in the United States has filed the first lawsuit challenging Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s aggressive immigration-enforcement efforts, saying he was unlawfully detained and the Sheriff’s Office is engaged in illegal racial-profiling.
The suit seeks, among other things, a declaratory judgment Arpaio’s actions are unconstitutional, injunctions prohibiting the use of Arpaio’s anti-immigration hotline and directing the Sheriff’s Office to disband its Undocumented Immigration Interdiction unit.
“Our investigations show the Sheriff’s Office has routinely exceeded their authority and shown a blatant disregard for the civil rights of individuals in Maricopa County,” said Lou Moffa, a lead attorney in the case. “With this suit, we hope to demonstrate no matter how politically popular an issue is, the Sheriff’s Office does not have the right to trounce haphazardly over an individual’s rights.”
The lawsuit, filed Wednesday in federal court, outlines several instances where Arpaio and sheriff’s deputies are accused of overstepping their authority to conduct “immigration raids,” targeting people solely based on race and detaining individuals who are undocumented in the country. Although only one plaintiff is identified, the lawsuit is a class-action suit filed on behalf of “all others similarly situated.”
Arpaio on Wednesday called the lawsuit “frivolous” and said it is an attempt to intimidate him before his office begins enforcing the employer-sanctions law on Jan. 1.
The state law threatens suspension and revocation of business licenses if an employer is found to have knowingly hired an undocumented worker. Moffa also has challenged that law in court.
The lawsuit against the Sheriff’s Office contends crackdowns in Cave Creek and Queen Creek and outside a Phoenix furniture store establish a pattern of “racial-profiling and abuse of authority.”
It also says a Hispanic man who is a U.S. citizen was illegally detained this month when he was walking on a sidewalk.
But it hinges on what happened to the identified plaintiff, Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, when he was in a vehicle driven by a White man who was stopped by deputies on Sept. 26 in Cave Creek.
The lawsuit says the deputy told the driver he was being stopped for speeding but did not issue a citation.
Ortega, a retired teacher, then was asked to produce identification.
Ortega said he legally entered the United States on Sept. 6 and produced a U.S. visa, his Mexican federal voter-registration card and a copy of a permit from the Department of Homeland Security with a stamp showing his admission to the United States was valid through Nov. 1.
The lawsuit claims Ortega was detained for about eight hours before an Immigration and Customs Enforcement agent verified his documents and set him free.
“To me, it appears there’s racial-profiling going on,” Moffa said. “That’s what we want to stop. It is not enough to stop somebody because they look Hispanic or they don’t speak English. People have rights.”
But sheriff’s Capt. Paul Chagolla said Ortega was “detained and transported appropriately” after he made statements about seeking employment when he was in the country with a visitor’s visa that didn’t allow him to work.
“There is no racial-profiling,” Arpaio said. “I don’t go around the street corner grabbing 10 people because they look like they’re from Mexico.”
The Sheriff’s Office has been enforcing federal immigration laws since March 2006.
Arpaio’s get-tough campaign against undocumented immigrants has targeted not only smugglers and violent criminals but also migrants who pay to be brought into the U.S. illegally and illegal day laborers.
About 160 deputies and jail officers have been specially trained to enforce federal immigration laws. Since 2006, ICE-trained deputies have arrested or deported more than 1,200 people.
And in July, Arpaio launched a controversial hotline to let the public report undocumented immigrants or smuggling activity.
Arpaio said his deputies have not overstepped their authority and have the power to enforce immigration violations if they encounter a person “in the course of their duties.”
That would include traffic stops like the one involving Ortega.
“We’re going to keep doing our job,” Arpaio said. “We’re going to keep arresting illegal immigrants.”