By Maria Leon
PHOENIX – The population of Hispanic prisoners has grown by 28 percent since 2004 in the jails of Arizona’s Maricopa County, an increase resulting from the enforcement of state laws against illegal immigration.
In 2004, there were 2,751 Hispanic prisoners in the jails Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, but that number had grown to 3,500 by 2008, according to statistics provided by the office of county Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
“I think this is the first time that the Hispanic population is higher than that of Anglo-Saxons in the jails,” Arpaio said in an interview with Efe.
Currently, Latino men represent 44 percent of the total number of prisoners in Maricopa, followed by non-Hispanic whites with 37 percent and African Americans with 14 percent.
The controversial sheriff attributed the increase to the approval of stricter state laws against illegal immigration.
In 2006, Arizona voters approved a law denying undocumented migrants the chance to post bail. In addition, the so-called anti-coyote law entered into force permitting charges to be brought against immigrants who had paid to be smuggled illegally into the United States.
Arpaio’s office is so far the only Arizona law enforcement agency to arrest migrants under the anti-coyote legislation.
In 2007, the Maricopa County sheriff’s department came to an agreement with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement under which deputies are trained and can perform some immigration duties.
But activists such as Alessandra Soler, executive director of the Arizona branch of the American Civil Liberties Union, think that this increase in the number of Hispanic prisoners is due to a combination of state laws and the tactics used by the sheriff’s department.
Those tactics have led to a U.S, Justice Department investigation of Arpaio for alleged racial profiling of legal residents and U.S. citizens of Hispanic origin.
“These figures (on Hispanic inmates) do not represent the level of crime, but the level of enforcement of these anti-immigrant laws that are affecting Latinos disproportionately,” Soler told Efe.
She added that more Latinos are being arrested because Arpaio targets their communities.
Soler said that the majority of Hispanics are arrested for minor crimes, including traffic infractions, or violations of immigration laws.
“First, they’re arrested for violations of the traffic laws and later they’re questioned about their immigration status,” the activist said.
Arpaio, who boasts of being “the toughest sheriff in the West,” also orchestrates raids on businesses in Maricopa County to enforce a state law sanctioning employers for knowingly hiring undocumented migrants.
Those raids have resulted in dozens of undocumented workers being arrested under the state law sanctioning employers for hiring illegal migrants.
In these cases, the undocumented people can face multiple charges, including identity theft.
Arpaio denied focusing only on the Hispanic community and said that he was only fulfilling his duty to enforce the laws that voters and the state legislature have approved.
Since March 10, when the Justice Department probe was launched, the Maricopa County sheriff’s department has arrested and jailed more than 4,000 undocumented immigrants, Arpaio’s office reported on Tuesday.
On average, the jails of Maricopa County hold between 8,000 and 10,000 prisoners on any given day, a figure that has remained about the same for the past five years. EFE