Police State: How the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement Agency Turned All Local Authorities Into La Migra

Alexis Estrada-Garcia of Guadalajara, Mexico, must have been surprised when the officer asked for her identification. She was just a passenger in the vehicle the officer had pulled over one evening in late February and probably did not think she was doing anything illegal.

But there is a seat belt law in this state, and Estrada-Garcia was not wearing one. That violation triggered a more obscure law, one that says a vehicle passenger suspected of violating any traffic law is obligated to show a valid ID to police.

Estrada-Garcia did not have identification, and off to jail she went. There, police discovered she was an illegal immigrant.

A couple of years ago, Estrada-Garcia would have been cited and released back into the community for her offense. But times have changed.

She was driven directly to a Phoenix facility of the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency, or ICE. Though New Times could not determine by press time what happened to her, the overwhelming likelihood is that she was shipped back to Mexico on a bus the next day.

The same sort of thing happened last month to Miguel Molina-Sepulveda, a passenger in a Plymouth minivan that got pulled over for failing to come to a complete stop at a stop sign. A police report states he was not wearing his seat belt either.

Neither the van's driver nor Molina-Sepulveda could present ID. Driver and passenger were arrested, turned over to ICE, and apparently deported.

You could say Molina-Sepulveda's arrest in Cave Creek was par for the course these days: He was picked up in one of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's anti-immigrant sweeps.

Yet it was Scottsdale police who handed over Estrada-Garcia to ICE.

She was one of hundreds of illegal immigrants who ended up deported after being arrested by Scottsdale police this year. True, most of them were accused of worse crimes than "non-driver failed to show ID."

But not much worse.

Reports obtained from Scottsdale show that though plenty of illegal immigrants get busted for DUI, forgery, theft, or more serious crimes, most of the time they are arrested while doing something that nearly any undocumented resident has to do to get around in the automobile-centric Phoenix metro area: drive without a license despite previous citations, give fake names to police officers, violate promises to appear in court, or drive with no ID at all.

For minor crimes that usually would not merit jail time, the punishment is almost always the same: deportation.

The Scottsdale department was among the first to tweak its policy on illegal aliens, requiring that everyone arrested — even for minor crimes — be checked for immigration status.

Now its policy is the norm among major Valley police agencies.

But the real change for illegals is that once their status is discovered, Valley cities get help from ICE that was unheard of two years ago — help ensuring that nearly every illegal immigrant arrested by any local police agency will be removed quickly from the country.

The fact is, for all the wailing over Arpaio's heavy-handed, ethnically oriented crime sweeps, illegal immigrants in the Valley now know:

Cops anywhere in Maricopa County equal La Migra.

In 2006, the ICE field office in Phoenix was poorly staffed and had been reined in by its bosses in Washington.

Then came a new ICE leader, new orders from Washington, and more money for personnel.

As it had done in other states, ICE began signing 287(g) agreements that cross-designated local law enforcers and detention officers as immigration agents. The Arizona Department of Public Safety, the Phoenix Police Department, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office, and the state Department of Corrections all signed 287(g) agreements with the feds — as did law-enforcement agencies in Pima, Pinal, and Yavapai counties.

Combined with the state's new human-smuggling law, passed in August 2006, Arizona authorities were suddenly identifying more illegal aliens than ever.

And, as promised, ICE was there to help. Illegal immigrants are now getting picked up from local jails, prisons, and crime scenes in record numbers.

The changes, along with the new police policies, have essentially transformed police, state troopers, deputies, and jail and prison guards into part-time immigration enforcers.

And plenty of Arizonans, especially in Maricopa County, agree that is exactly what should be done. The pressure on law enforcement has come from the bottom up. It has been a large segment of the public loudly demanding that local leaders act in a way the feds cannot, or will not.

In 2006, voters approved, by 3-to-1 margins, a quartet of anti-illegal-immigrant proposals that denied bail, lawsuit awards, in-state tuition, and various state benefits to undocumented residents. Last year, Arizona lawmakers, led by then-State Representative Russell Pearce of Mesa, kicked off the toughest law in the country for businesses that knowingly hired illegals. (This year, East Valley Republicans nominated Pearce to be state senator. He faces weak Democratic opposition in the general election.) In Phoenix, liberal-leaning Mayor Phil Gordon felt compelled to lead the city's police force to a more aggressive stance on illegals.

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.
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.