Bill Montgomery Prosecuting Fewer Illegal Immigrants for Smuggling Themselves Into Country

Maricopa County Bill Montgomery has prosecuted far fewer illegal immigrants for conspiring to smuggle themselves than his predecessor, Andrew Thomas.

Thomas, who was disbarred earlier this year for abusing his power, came up with the idea to charge average illegal immigrants with conspiracy under Arizona's 2005 state human smuggling law as a way to meet a campaign promise to do something about illegal immigration. He called the plan his own "no-amnesty policy."

Thomas' political ally, Sheriff Joe Arpaio, was more than happy to supply him with arrested illegal immigrants, who were hunted down by his deputies as part of what the U.S. Department of Justice called one of the worst cases of racial profiling ever seen. In the mid-2000s, though, courts upheld the Thomas interpretation of the smuggling and conspiracy statutes.

Rick Romley temporarily suspended those conspiracy prosecutions while he served as interim county attorney from April to November of 2010, saying that Arpaio and Thomas, while focusing on low-level offenders, were letting crime syndicates gain in power.

See also: $5 million (and counting) to jail "human cargo" of smugglers under AZ law

In a 2008 article, we related how each offender -- instead of being put on a bus to Mexico or sent to other locales -- would serve about three months' time in county lockup, for a cost to taxpayers of about $6,800 each.

Montgomery re-started the prosecutions after taking office in November of 2010. He and Arpaio funneled slightly fewer immigrants through the system on conspiracy charges in 2011.

This year, the number of people prosecuted on the Thomas innovation has fallen dramatically.

New Times requested data about these cases from the county attorney's office last month, and the office released the figures this week:

2008 = 294

2009 = 493

2010 = 369 (Andrew Thomas leaves office in April. Rick Romley serves from April to November, when Montgomery took over.)

2011 = 330

2012 = 155 (as of last week)

Those numbers are similar to other figures released in media reports recently about the decline in illegal immigrants, but don't line up precisely.

While border apprehensions and illegal immigrants identified in Maricopa County jails have decreased by steady, large margins since 2008, Thomas, conversely, saw a 67 percent jump in his 2009 prosecutions for immigrants on smuggling conspiracy charges.

Immigrants deported under the 287(g) compact between the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureau, either by a voluntary removal or deportation order, fell 31 percent from 2008 to 2009.

One explanation for the difference could be the hyper-aggressive -- and racially discriminatory -- enforcement policies of Arpaio and Thomas' offices.

Here are stats for people removed by ICE from Maricopa jails:

2009: (-31 percent from 2008) 2010: (-37 percent) 2011: (-42 percent) 2012: (-53 percent)

And the rates for the people prosecuted under the state conspiracy charge:

2009: (67 percent increase from 2008) 2010: (-25 percent) 2011: (-10 percent) 2012: (-42 percent)

Submitted human-smuggling conspiracy cases and subsequent filings by Montgomery's office have also seen a much more pronounced drop in 2012. These numbers are somewhat less useful than the numbers of actual people prosecuted, however. The County Attorney's Office says the numbers it release for submittal and filings include more than just "illegal alien" cases, that each case may involve numerous defendants, and that there may or may not be "overlap" in the numbers.

(As a side note, we should mention that although Arpaio has boasted in the past that he's running the only agency that submits these smuggle-yourself cases for prosecution, the County Attorney's Office says that a few have originated from the Arizona Department of Public Safety.)

The large drop-off in conspiracy defendants this year doesn't just coincide with an overall drop in immigrants. Arpaio's office has faced serious pressure in the past year to re-tool his immigration enforcement efforts. The decrease in conspiracy prosecutions seems to have accelerated following a December ruling by a federal judge that targeted how the Sheriff's Office could pull over suspected immigration violators.

U.S. District Judge Murrary Snow, in a wide-ranging lawsuit alleging that Arpaio and his deputies discriminate against Hispanics, told the agency that it could no longer detain anyone based solely on the notion that the person might be an illegal immigration. The Sheriff's Office has appealed the ruling, but hasn't gotten an answer yet either on that question or a verdict by Snow in the racial profiling lawsuit.

Naturally, neither Arpaio nor his new political ally, Bill Montgomery, want to give any credit for the decrease in punished illegal immigrants to their foes, who are suing Arpaio -- the U.S. government and the civil-rights advocates.

Deputy Chief Brian Sands of the Sheriff's Office, through spokeswoman Lisa Allen, says that "prosecutions may be declining because, until recently, the amount of human smuggling activity was declining, perhaps in part due to the economy here in the US. Recently, we have seen an upsurge in the numbers of load vehicles found so more prosecutions are on their way...."

Bill Montgomery declined comment on the matter last week for New Times.

His spokesman, Jerry Cobb, wrote in an e-mail, "These figures would appear to be consistent with the well documented declines in illegal immigration in Arizona."

Clearly, the declines of undocumented people must have had some effect on the conspiracy prosecutions. But, at least in the last year, another impact on Arpaio and Montgomery's plans to bust illegal immigrants has been the push-back.

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Ray Stern has worked as a newspaper reporter in Arizona for more than two decades. He's won numerous awards for his reporting, including the Arizona Press Club's Don Bolles Award for Investigative Journalism.