Agencies prep for immigration law
Randy Metcalf/The Explorer, Pima County Adult Detention Center workers prepare an inmate for transfer into U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody last month. Jail officials turn over suspected illegal immigrants to federal custody most weekdays.

Early last month, an Oro Valley resident called police, concerned that laborers doing yard work at a neighbor's house were illegal immigrants.

The resident wanted police to check if the men were licensed contractors, and to make inquiries about their immigration status — as the state's controversial new immigration law would require.

An officer informed the resident that the state registrar of contractors regulates construction trades, and the new state law does not go into effect until July 29. In effect, there was no crime to investigate.

Such calls could become more common after the law is enforced. What have law enforcement agencies done to prepare?

"What we've done, obviously we've read the law, and looked at our policies," said Oro Valley Police Chief Danny Sharp. "We feel that we're ready to go."

Sharp said the department awaits the completion of an Arizona Peace Officers Standards and Training instructional video that would train officers on how to enforce the law without violating suspects' rights — a major concern of opponents. The video will be provided to law enforcement agencies across the state in coming weeks. AZPOST is the state agency tasked with providing uniform training standards to law enforcement.

Pima County Sheriff's Department officials also see the transition into the new era as fairly straightforward.

Despite Pima County Sheriff Clarence Dupnik's early and vocal opposition to the new law, a spokesman said the department plans to approach the new law as it would any other.

"We're going to handle this as business as usual," said department spokesman Jason Ogan. "We will comply with the training from AZPOST."

Prior to the new law, presence in the country illegally was not a violation of state statutes. The new regulations, however, mean illegal immigrants would be charged under state statutes and processed through the Arizona judicial system.

Many police agencies already have procedures for handling suspected aliens. Oro Valley police are directed to request federal authorities to verify status, and to pick up the person if he's determined to be an illegal immigrant.

If Border Patrol or Immigration and Customs Enforcement can't respond after a reasonable amount of time, the officer has to fill out a field interview report and release the suspected illegal immigrant.

Officers would arrest suspected illegal immigrants on misdemeanor or felony charges if the situation warrants. In such cases, officers would take the person to jail. A similar policy stands in Pima County.

The same procedure holds for other police agencies, with some caveats.

In Tucson, for instance, police are not permitted to request immigration officials to respond to churches or schools.

The Marana Police Department does not have a policy for handling foreign nationals, according to Chief Terry Tometich.

With an estimated 500,000 illegal immigrants living and working in Arizona, police routinely encounter people who may be here illegally.

Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villaseñor, while meeting with U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder in Washington, D.C., last month, told reporters that forcing local police to enforce immigration law would make it more difficult to investigate crimes if the witnesses or victims happen to be illegal immigrants.

Villaseñor speculated that such people would be reluctant to come forward for fear of being deported.

Oro Valley Chief Sharp expressed similar, although measured, concerns.

"We have created a different class of victim," Sharp said, adding that the issue would have a larger effect on police departments in bigger cities.

Concerns also have been raised that enforcing the new law would take resources away from other police duties.

"That's the biggest copout," said Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio at a political fundraiser at Oro Valley Country Club recently. "I'm sick and tired of hearing, 'go after the big guy.'"

Arpaio has been criticized in the past for devoting heavy resources to busts of illegal immigrants in the Phoenix area.

The new law also presents the possibility of additional costs for local communities to bear.

"There's a cost associated with incarcerating them locally," Sharp said. "If we book someone into jail, Oro Valley pays $200." The arresting agency also pays $82 for each additional day someone remains in jail.

The Explorer asked Oro Valley Police, Marana, Tucson Police and the Pima County Sheriff's Department for an annual count of people given over to Border Patrol or other federal immigration enforcement agencies. All of the police agencies said they do not track the figure.

Officials at the Pima County Adult Detention Center, however, do keep track of the immigration status of inmates. While the population at the jail fluctuates daily, officials said the average daily number of illegal immigrants incarcerated stands at about 10 percent, slightly less than 200 people.

Jail officials also track the number of suspected illegal immigrants that it turns over to federal authorities.

In fiscal 2009, 1,182 inmates were transferred to Immigration and Customs Enforcement custody. As of May of this fiscal year, 942 suspected illegal immigrants have been transferred.

"If we start booking in undocumented aliens into our jail, it could deplete our resources," Lt. Jeffrey Palmer of the Pima County Sheriff's Department said. "Immigration enforcement is best left to our federal colleagues, because that's what they do best."

In addition to the trepidation among some in the law enforcement community, Pima County Attorney Barbara LaWall has instructed staff members to research the potential legal issues associated with the new law.

According to Amelia Cramer, chief deputy county attorney for Pima County, attorneys with the county have found at least 18 possible legal issues in the new law.

"The law is extremely complicated from a legal standpoint," Cramer said.

She added that the county has six attorneys researching the law and to date has devoted more than $30,000 in salary time to the issue.

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