Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio backs down on immigration. Will others follow?

A federal judge ordered Sheriff Joe Arpaio to stop using race or ancestry to determine who is stopped for questioning. It could affect other states that followed Arizona's lead on illegal immigration.

Ross D. Franklin/AP
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio listens to one of his attorneys during a news conference in Phoenix, in 2012. Arpaio, who led the way for local police across the country to take up immigration enforcement, is reconsidering his crackdowns – and other law enforcement officials who followed his lead are expected to eventually back away, too.

After years in the national spotlight for his flashy enforcement of US immigration laws, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is backing off in response to a federal court ruling that his office had discriminated against Latinos.

"There will not be roundups of people because they were in the country unlawfully, period," says Tim Casey, Mr. Arpaio’s lead attorney.

A federal judge ordered Arpaio to stop using race or ancestry to determine which drivers are stopped for questioning under a policy known as “saturation patrols.” The order, issued two weeks ago, dealt a blow to the Phoenix-area lawman that could have a significant ripple effect in states that, like Arizona, have turned to local law enforcement to target illegal immigration.

"Officers across the country will make sure that their policies are well written, and that their officers are well trained, and that they don't just shoot from the hip," says Evelyn Cruz, who teaches immigration law at Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz.

The May 24 ruling from US District Court Judge Murray Snow followed a class-action suit filed by Latinos who said they were racially profiled, in violation of their constitutional rights.

A June 14 hearing has been scheduled to discuss procedures that would ensure that there are "no further uses of race in any law enforcement decisions," Mr. Casey says, adding that the sheriff's office won't oppose the possibility of increasing supervision, education, and training for his deputies.

Sheriff Arpaio has earned foes, admirers, and myriad lawsuits for his zealous pursuit of people living in the country illegally. When the federal government stripped him of his powers to make immigration arrests back in the fall of 2009, he took cover behind state immigration laws to crack down on illegal immigration.

While his notorious immigration sweeps in certain sectors of metropolitan Phoenix have not been conducted since October 2011, his critics long have accused him of over-stepping his authority.

Arpaio has been a strong supporter of SB 1070, the controversial 2010 law designed to encourage illegal immigrants to leave the state. It sought to make violations of federal immigration law into violations of Arizona law, empowering state officials to arrest illegal immigrants.

Although the US Supreme Court struck down much of the law, the "papers please" provision still allows local law enforcement to inquire about a person's legal status in the course of an investigation.

"The Supreme Court did say that you can arrest individuals who are undocumented, if you have probable cause and if you have the full rights of protection under the constitution," says Professor Cruz. "But the court also said that it looked very difficult to do but it was going to let the states give it a try."

The ruling against Arpaio may be used to challenge remaining provisions of SB 1070 and similar laws across the country, says Anita Sinha, who teaches immigration law at the American University Washington College of Law.

"This could have repercussions not just in Arizona but in the other states that use local enforcement for immigration purposes," adds Professor Sinha, a practitioner-in-residence at the university's Immigrant Justice Clinic.

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