SB 1070: Phoenix Officials Calm Residents' Fears; Answer Questions About Police Enforcement of Law

About 200 people filed into the Carl Hayden High School auditorium in west Phoenix in search of answers on Monday evening, in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling that allowed one of the most controversial provisions of SB 1070 to stand.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, councilmen Michael Nowakowski and Danny Valenzuela and Police Chief Daniel Garcia did their best assuage the confusion, doubt, fear and frustration of Phoenix residents in the crowd.

Overall, it appeared that audience members were satisfied with city official's plans on handling enforcement of the law -- even as Chief Garcia made it clear that Phoenix Police Department will enforce SB 1070, a law that essentially requires local cops to act as immigration-enforcement agents.

"We will enforce the laws equally, and we will not tolerate the violation of anyone's civil rights," he said.

An immigration attorney in the audience questioned city officials regarding language in the law that only required police officers to call ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) when it is practical to do so.

"We heard today from [U.S. Secretary of Homeland Security] essentially saying that the Department of Homeland Security is going to withdraw 287(g), particular here in Maricopa County, and throughout the state of Arizona," the immigration attorney said. "In addition, the Department of Homeland Security said it was was not going to take calls from state authorities or local authorities on immigration status issues."

(The 287(g) program cross-trained local cops and allowed them to enforce federal immigration laws in cooperation with ICE agents.)

Then he asked: "At what point does this become impractical to call ICE when you have somebody detained? Will the decision be made that the resources of the city are no longer to be used to make calls that are not practical because ICE and DHS are simply not going to take them, or not going to be responding to them:"

Garcia said that police have an "obligation to make an effort to enforce law," that his officers would follow that process, but added that he couldn't "speak to when ICE would or would not answer the phone," he said.

Stanton said that if the time came when Chief Garcia decided that police officers calling ICE, as a practical matter, was a waste of time, and decided that it's a good police practice to stop wasting time, that he would support that decision.

The 2b provision of SB 1070 gives cops the authority to investigate and question a person about their immigration status during a lawful stop if they have "reasonable suspicion" that the person is undocumented. Many people wanted to know what would make a police officer reasonably suspicious.

It involves various circumstances. It's complicated. It isn't defined by the law.

Those were the best answers Phoenix officials could muster when, for example, a woman asked whether showing her Mexican identification to a police officer who pulls her over would constitute "reasonable suspicion" that she was undocumented.

"That by itself isn't reasonable suspicion," Chief Garcia said, repeating that reaching that legal basis involves varying factors.

"Reasonable suspicion includes several facts and circumstances that would make a reasonable person believe someone is committing or has committed an immigration violation," he said. "It is based on the totality of all the facts and circumstances known to the officer."

Garcia reiterated to the audience that race, color, and national origin cannot be one of the facts an officer can use to develop reasonable suspicion.

It wasn't enough, and the question was asked several times.

Stanton told New Times that the lack of clarity on that point "puts law enforcement in a very difficult situation. That's why the chief of police couldn't answer that question. There isn't much guidance. But we can just be as honest as possible with the community."

Audience members wanted to know whether they would get stopped by police and questioned about their status if they were just walking in their community and not carrying identification with them.

No, Garcia said.

"No citizen is required to have any type of identification while walking, bicycling or just out enjoying the day," he said.

Others asked what would happen if they were just a passenger in a car, traveling with someone who is documented? Will they get in trouble? Will the driver? What if they're a witness to a crime, or a victim of a crime? Will they get questioned about their status if they call the police?

Garcia explained that only the driver is required to have a driver's license, and that they can't get in trouble for having someone in the car who is undocumented. And he made clear there would be no repercussions for individuals who report a crime in their community -- that is, if the reporting individual wasn't also violating the law.

The questions went on for nearly two hours, at times with individuals complaining about police officers harassing or mistreating them. To several of them, Garcia said he would speak to more in depth after the meeting -- which elicited a resounding applause.

One woman was so excited at the prospect of speaking directly with the chief, she raised her arms in victory and bounced in her chair. It was clear that some area residents are desperate to have their voices heard.

Nowakowski and the others capitalized on the pent-up frustration by renewing a plea that everyone who was eligible register to vote should go out and actually vote.

Garcia pledged to listen, telling the community that this town hall gathering would not be the only one.

"The reality is that we're going to have some victories, and we're going to have some failures," he said. "What I need from you is to tell us when we're doing something good, and tell us when we're doing something wrong."

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Monica Alonzo
Contact: Monica Alonzo