A perfect storm hit the state of Arizona this week. On Tuesday, the Arizona House passed SB1070—a bill which would compel local police officers to investigate people’s immigration status based on a “reasonable suspicion” he/she was in the country illegally. Two days later, Arizona residents witnessed local police descending onto their streets (along with hundreds of ICE and other federal enforcement agents) in a sweep of 52 people suspected to be part of a large-scale human-smuggling ring.
More than 800 law enforcement officers took part in what was dubbed “Operation in Plain Sight”—the result of a year-long investigation targeting transportation companies allegedly involved in smuggling unauthorized immigrants across the border. According to ICE, the agents and officers represented nine federal, state, and local law enforcement agencies resulting in a large and disproportionate show of force, as 54 suspects were taken into custody. Arrests were made in Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales, and Rio Rico, as well as in Nogales, Mexico. Those arrested were charged with serious crimes—including money laundering, alien smuggling, and conspiracy.
In all fairness, this operation focused on what DHS should be doing—finding dangerous criminals like human smugglers and putting them out of business. ICE reportedly tried to arrest only those listed in criminal indictments and did not try to increase the number of arrests by picking up bystanders, or “collaterals,” as ICE calls them. They cooperated with the Mexican government and stopped criminals who were harming people on both sides of the border. Smart enforcement should include targeting smugglers, traffickers, and other criminals who are taking advantage of a broken immigration system and creating a climate of violence and fear along the border.
However, the timing and tone-deafness of this action could not have been worse. ICE has a history of conducting raids just as state or local governments are contemplating critical immigration-related policies. At best, the action left the impression that ICE wants to influence those policy decisions; at worst ICE left the public with the impression that local law enforcement is the same thing as an ICE officer. The massive display of force, a 14-to-1 police to suspect ratio, shows a lopsided use of resources and further terrorizes an already fearful community. The fact that local police were involved made an already bad situation worse. With Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his posse hunting down immigrants in Maricopa County and a potential new law poised to expand this to police agencies statewide, the last thing the immigrant community (and the police who want to serve and protect them) needed was to see their local police officers standing side by side with ICE during such a large enforcement action.
In recent weeks, ICE has come under a great deal of fire for failing to focus resources on criminal threats. Leaked internal memos showed an agency in which external priorities and internal policies differed greatly. A report by the DHS Office of Inspector General on the 287(g) program illuminated the agency’s inability to supervise and manage an expanding program.
While this action was not supposed to be about local law enforcement or picking up border-crossers, it left an incredibly strong impression on these immigrant communities in Arizona. “Operation In Plain Sight” may have had the right intentions, but it’s hard to cheer on an agency who seems to only get it right about 1% of the time.