Cynical Bill Montgomery Airs PSA to "Comfort" the Undocumented

No one can say Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery lacks chutzpah.

For years now, Montgomery has exploited anti-Latino bigotry to obtain and retain public office.

When he campaigned for attorney general in 2006, Montgomery was one of many politicians who snuggled up to the racist minuteman movement.

In 2010, he ran to the right of then-interim County Attorney Rick Romley in the GOP primary. Montgomery wholeheartedly supported Sand Land's ugly anti-immigration legislation, Senate Bill 1070, and promised a return to the policies of his now-disbarred and disgraced predecessor, Andrew Thomas.

This included reviving Thomas' policy of prosecuting migrants for conspiring with "coyotes" to self-smuggle themselves into the country.

In September, the policy was declared unconstitutional by a federal judge, who said it was superseded by federal law.

Of course, Montgomery's appealing that decision. Never mind that those smuggled into the country often end up victims of the smugglers.

Montgomery's stalwart support for Sheriff Joe Arpaio's anti-immigrant policies paid off in 2010 with an endorsement from Arpaio and the sheriff's spending more than a half-million bucks to defeat Romley in the primary.

And Montgomery has returned the favor in many ways.

After the U.S. Department of Justice issued a letter in 2011 finding that there was a widespread "culture of bias" toward Latinos in the MCSO, Montgomery denounced the DOJ, claiming, incorrectly, that it had not backed up its accusations, which were the result of a three-year investigation.

Since then, the DOJ has filed a civil rights lawsuit against the MCSO. And in a separate lawsuit, Melendres v. Arpaio, a federal judge has found Arpaio's office guilty of biased policing and ordered a monitor as well as numerous other measures aimed at ending the MCSO's racial-profiling ways.

Yet, the county attorney continues to prosecute undocumented workers arrested in Arpaio's worksite raids, holding busboys and middle-aged cleaning ladies without bond on charges of forgery and ID theft while ignoring any culpability by the bigger fish involved: employers.

Granted, there is evidence that Montgomery recently altered this policy by declining to prosecute 14 of the more than 20 people arrested by the MCSO after its August raid of the commercial cleaning company ProServ.

But this is more a result of the fight he's encountered from some local immigration attorneys.

It's important to know that the Monty who speaks Spanish in new County Attorney's Office public-service announcements is the same Monty who mercilessly has jailed and prosecuted the undocumented from day one in office.

The PSAs, which start a yearlong run next month, begin with an insult, delivered by the county attorney in the English version and by someone else in the Spanish version.

"It's easy to stay in the shadows," we are told, "to stay quiet and mind your own business and don't get involved."

Really? If only I could transform Monty into a Mexican migrant, with limited or no English, and see how "easy" being in the shadows is for him.

The PSAs feature images of Hispanic kids hugging and Latino couples smiling. Then we get Monty himself.

"We don't stand for crime," he tells the camera, speaking Spanish in the Spanish-language PSA. "Crime gets reported. When you report crime, your immigration status doesn't matter. That's the law."

During a recent press conference to debut the commercials, he insisted that the law in question was none other than the "papers please" section of SB 1070, the one requiring cops to check the immigration status of anyone they've stopped and suspect of being in the country illegally.

Monty argues that one line of section 2b covers victims and witnesses. It states that cops "shall" determine a suspect's immigration status "except if the determination may hinder or obstruct an investigation."

Thing is, it's up to the cop and/or the agency involved. There is no guarantee in 1070 that victims and witnesses will not be asked about immigration status.

In fact, a person is only "presumed to not be an alien who is unlawfully present," unless that person presents certain ID, such as an Arizona driver's license.

And I can tell you from reporting on several such cases that if an otherwise law-abiding undocumented person shows a foreign ID to a local cop, he or she risks arrest for presenting a forged document, whether or not the ID is valid.

Why do some police officers assume that a matricula card from the Mexican consulate or a driver's license from a Latin American country is a forgery?

Because they can. Those arrested often cannot afford counsel and end up held non-bondable, coerced into copping a plea and a one-way ticket to the custody of federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

Additionally, Montgomery has a policy of making it incredibly difficult for victims of crime to obtain certifications for a U visa, which allows them to remain and work in the country legally if they cooperate with law enforcement.

The County Attorney's Office has denied that it has a policy of not certifying U visas, but its own statistics belie this denial.

According to office spokesman Jerry Cobb, between January 2009 and May 2012, it received 83 U visa requests, certified six, and declined 19.

"The rest were either approved by another agency — applicants typically apply to multiple law enforcement agencies — or were not associated with active cases or were pending review," Cobb wrote me in January, when I first asked about the issue.

Six certifications out of 83 requests over a 2 1/2-year period equals 7.2 percent of the time.

Which is why, immigration attorneys tell me, victims of, say, robbery and rape go to other agencies.

County prosecutors quietly will tell you the same thing. To even suggest a U visa is grounds for reprimand.

At his press conference, Montgomery gave no indication that his U visa policy was getting altered.

Also, he insisted that his PSAs encouraging the undocumented to report crime are "consistent with guidance I've given law enforcement."

This was news to Arizona ACLU legal director Dan Pochoda, who said his organization has been pushing for just such an interpretation of 1070's "hinder or obstruct" clause.

"We have been arguing that there is an 'out' in 2b," said Pochoda. "Because targeting or arresting a witness or victim of a crime will necessarily interfere with an ongoing investigation . . . So far, there have been few if any takers."

One of those not taking is the Phoenix Police Department, the largest law enforcement agency in the Valley.

It's Operations Order 4.48 says officers should "consider when or whether to investigate immigration status in light of the need for suspect, victim, and witness cooperation."

This leaves the decision to the cop. It's not a department-wide ban. Nor is it "the law," as Monty assures the undocumented.

Back when the 1070 debate was roiling, then-Phoenix Police Chief Jack Harris gave a sworn statement to the Justice Department for use in its lawsuit against Arizona over 1070.

Harris was pilloried by some for declaring that 1070 would "have a negative effect on our community policing efforts" and that victims and witnesses "will be afraid to call police for fear of deportation."

Monty's new commercials offer evidence that Harris was right. Otherwise, what would be the need? Save to sucker the undocumented into incriminating themselves or to con Latino voters into thinking that Monty's not a bad guy after all.

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Stephen is a former staff writer and columnist at Phoenix New Times.
Contact: Stephen Lemons