News

Arpaio and the 287(g) Hearings, Direct from D.C.

TRIUMPH IN D.C.

The weather was muggy. The cherry blossoms were in bloom. And Sheriff Joe Arpaio was on the agenda on Capitol Hill, in a joint session of two subcommittees of the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by California congresswoman and Democrat Zoe Lofgren.

Officially, the three-hour session was meant to probe the flaws of the 287(g) program, which allows local cops to enforce federal immigration law after being trained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But two star witnesses from Arizona made sure that Arpaio's exploitation of the 287(g) program for political purposes, his racial profiling, and his civil rights abuses took center stage: Mesa Police Chief George Gascón and Avondale resident and Julio Mora.

There were other witnesses, from both sides of the 287(g) argument, who addressed the committee. But Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building was packed that day with Joe foes, from Cactus Country and elsewhere.

Among the spectators were Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, Phoenix lawyer Antonio Bustamante, civil rights activist Salvador Reza, and Chris Newman, a lawyer with the L.A.-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which, along with ACORN, was instrumental in making the hearings happen.

I was there, as well. You can read the extended coverage on my Feathered Bastard blog. In general, the hearing was a score for House Dems, anti-Joe activists, and those opposed to the 287(g) program.

Though the Republicans are to be admired for their willingness to dive headfirst into the mud with a steak knife in each paw, the pro-287(g) witnesses were flops, reminding folks of the racially charged implications of 287(g), which gives law enforcement carte blanche to pursue those guilty of DWB, or driving while brown.

Amazingly, law prof Kris Kobach was picked to carry water for the pro-287(g) side. Kobach was an immigration adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft during the Bush years, but it's his alleged ties to white supremacists that muddied his credibility even before he offered his first rationalization for the 287(g) program. In a letter to the Judiciary Committee's leadership, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center alerted the committee to Kobach's work as "senior counsel" to the "legal arm of Federation for American Immigration Reform," an organization that has taken $1.2 million from a group dedicated to eugenics, according to the SPLC. The SPLC letter quoted FAIR founder John Tanton as making statements advocating racial purity, and noted that Kobach had taken campaign contributions from FAIR for a failed 2004 congressional campaign.

Lofgren allowed Kobach's testimony in spite of the letter, and the Republicans on the committee made statements aimed at disputing the SPLC's expertise on such matters. But Kobach's usefulness as a cheerleader for 287(g) was severely undercut.

Even the Republicans' possible ringer, Virginia Beach, Virginia resident and Ray Tranchant, backfired on them. Tranchant's 16-year-old daughter Tessa and her best friend were killed by drunk driver Alfredo Ramos. Ramos was in the country illegally. Ultimately, he received 40 years for his crime.

But Tranchant's own words hurt his plea for his dead daughter by conflating all those who are undocumented in this country with criminals like Ramos. In his statement to the committee, he referred to "illegal immigrants" as "transparent criminals in a broken system that lets them kill or injure honest citizens."

Asked by GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa to expand his remarks, Tranchant continued to place hoof in gullet.

"I don't want undesirable people in America," he said. "I don't want drunks in America . . . We want desirable people here."

Tranchant may not have meant it that way, but the phrase "undesirable people" sounded like a code word. Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) took Tranchant to task for his characterizations. He pointed out that the same sort of derogatory descriptions were used to condemn Italian and Irish immigrants in their day.

"They were wrong about the Irish," Gutierrez informed Tranchant. "They were wrong about the Italians . . . And they're wrong today to tarnish a whole immigrant community because of the actions of a few."

GOP ON D

The minority Republicans scored some hits during the hearing, but too often their tactics were simply diversionary and, sometimes, they exploded in their hands like mishandled grenades.

The most significant was the attempt to smear Mesa Police Chief Gascón. No doubt this was because Gascón's opening statement was particularly effective, pointing out at length the problems with the 287(g) program, the wedge it drives between the police and immigrant communities, and its potential for abuse by certain bad actors, who were left unnamed in Gascón's initial salvo.

"The impact on local law enforcement in this politically charged environment [created by the 287(g) program] can be devastating," Gascón related. "In some cases, it is setting the police profession back to the 1950s and 1960s, when police officers were sometimes viewed in minority communities as the enemy."

KEEP PHOENIX NEW TIMES FREE... Since we started Phoenix New Times, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Phoenix, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons