The so-called “toughest sheriff” in the United States was slapped with a lawsuit Wednesday challenging raids on Arizona businesses over the last several years that have resulted in the arrest of hundreds of undocumented immigrants.
Multiple plaintiffs have joined up to sue Maricopa County's outspoken Sheriff Joe Arpaio, known for his harsh crackdowns on undocumented workers and the brutal state of the jails he oversees.
The suit challenges two state laws — H.B. 2779 and H.B. 2745, passed in 2007 and 2008 — and specifically attacks the legality of the workplace searches conducted by Arpaio’s department to track down and arrest immigrant workers using either fake or stolen IDs. The plaintiffs claiming these busts violate federal law.
“It’s the sole authority of the federal government to resolve issues at the intersection of immigration and employment,” Sameer Ashar, a professor at University of California Irvine’s Law School, told VICE News. The school is a co-council on the lawsuit.
According to the filing, both the sheriff and attorney's offices in Maricopa County have used the laws “to carry out a campaign of workplace raids targeting undocumented immigrants.” Maricopa County is located in southwestern Arizona and includes the city of Phoenix.
The claimants are seeking an injunction that would put an immediate stop to the raids. They are also asking that the felony charges be expunged from the record of two of the plaintiffs who were arrested in one of Arpaio’s raids.
“The laws passed that allow the raids to take place were done in a way to single out immigrants, violating equal protection laws,” Ashar said.
'This is something that was created specifically to target the community and to scare people.'
Since both laws were enacted in 2008, Arpaio’s forces have arrested 790 workers in more than 80 different raids. As other lawsuits have been filed against Arpaio, the sheriff has lost many of his tools to attack immigration and has thus fallen back on the raids for enforcing immigration laws.
“[Business raids] are one of the last remaining ways in which he continues to attack our community,” Carlos Garcia, an organizer at the immigrant advocacy group Puente Arizona, told VICE News — Puente Arizona is one of several plaintiffs in the case. “This is something that was created specifically to target the community and to scare people.”
After being arrested in the raids, undocumented immigrants are often held in one of Maricopa County's jails for months without the possibility of bond, and if they are convicted of a felony they lose all options for a path to citizenship.
Neomi Romero, who was arrested during a supermarket raid in January 2013, told VICE News that the conditions in the jail she was held in were “disrespectful.” She described rotten food, aggressive guards who were impatient with Spanish-speaking inmates, and being forced to wear the same clothes and underwear for a week straight.
The now 22-year-old said after two months in the county’s jail and five weeks in an immigration center, she was excited to get out and see her family. But after release she faced a new struggle — finding a job again.
Since her arrest Romero has been wary about providing a false social security number on paperwork like she had done in the past. It is commonplace for employers to suggest "borrowing" a social security number. She and her parents have decided it’s not worth risking a second arrest, but the felony on her record will make it impossible for her to obtain citizenship and a job in a legitimate manner.
“There’s nothing I can do about it, when you have a criminal record you’re not eligible for DACA [Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals],” she said, in reference to the Obama administration’s 2012 memorandum that created a path for some children brought to the country illegally to seek citizenship. “It’s frustrating, I haven’t been able to get a job in a little over a year, I’m not getting any younger.”
When she heard news of the lawsuit, Romero said she was optimistic that it could open up an opportunity for her to obtain citizenship. For immigrants like her, if the lawsuit paves the way for expunging felonies for individuals arrested in Arpaio’s raids, they would again be eligible for DACA.
'I’ll see ‘em in court.'
For his part, Arpaio doesn’t seemed to worried that he might lose one of his only remaining resources for policing undocumented immigrants. His office did not return requests for comment, but he told MSNBC that the “raids” were used to crack down on identity theft violations.
“We did arrests of over 700, 800 suspects through the course of several years for fake identification. And these are felonies,” he told the network. “I’ll see ‘em in court.”
While Arpaio may be unphased by the suit, the plaintiffs are hopeful that taking action against the sheriff will also improve immigrant worker rights around the country. Garcia explains that other counties and states keep an eye on Arpaio to see what he can get away with in terms of policy enforcement.
“He’s become somewhat of a testing ground. If we have the power to stop something here, we can keep it from going other places,” he said.
Follow Kayla Ruble on Twitter: @RubleKB
Image via Flickr/George Skidmore.