Luther Glenn
Roy Dabner  /  AP
Luther Glenn, center, a member of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Posse, listens as Sheriff Joe Arpaio kicks off the department's effort to find illegal immigrants on Wednesday in Avondale, Ariz.
updated 5/11/2006 12:54:48 AM ET 2006-05-11T04:54:48

A 250-member sheriff’s posse launched patrols in desert areas and major roadways southwest of Phoenix on Wednesday night, searching for illegal immigrants to arrest under a new state smuggling law.

The group was comprised of existing Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies and members of the department’s 3,000-member posse reserve of trained volunteers.

The posse will patrol the area for illegal immigrants who pay smugglers to cross through Arizona, the busiest illegal entry point along the 2,000-mile U.S.-Mexico border.

“You’ve got the people of this country and the people of Maricopa County behind you,” Sheriff Joe Arpaio told the posse. “You also have the sheriff behind you.”

Those who are captured by the posse may end up in jail, charged under the state law that allowed local law enforcement agencies to charge suspected smugglers in Arizona — it was already a federal crime.

It has been used against more than 100 illegal immigrants in Maricopa County this year.

Unique interpretation of law
The law was meant to crack down on smugglers, but under a disputed interpretation, County Attorney Andrew Thomas argues the law also can be applied to the smuggled immigrants themselves.

Thomas maintains illegal immigrants who pay smugglers to enter the United States are committing conspiracy to smuggle and can therefore be prosecuted under the state law. It’s punishable by up to two years in jail.

“It’s going to be a help to the county,” posse member D.J. Pigott said. “Illegal immigrants are getting everything that, in my estimation, they should not get. We’re being overrun by these people. If the federal government is not going to do it, the sheriff is going to do it.”

It remains to be seen whether a judge will uphold the smuggling law as applicable to illegal immigrants. Lawyers for some arrested illegal immigrants have filed motions to have the charges dismissed.

Critics say sheriff in wrong
The Center for Human Rights and Constitutional Law in Los Angeles is challenging Thomas’s interpretation.

“We agree with Andrew Thomas that federal immigration policy is a mess,” said Peter Schey, director of the human rights group. “But we part company when it comes to what should be done about that. We don’t believe anyone has the right to break the law because they’re frustrated with federal policy.”

Even the authors of the state smuggling law say it was meant to crack down on violent immigrant smugglers — not the people they’re transporting.

“I never intended that immigrants would be arrested,” said Rep. Jonathan Paton, a Republican who was one of three legislators to write the smuggling law.

Other police agencies say that arresting illegal immigrants under the law would overwhelm them financially.

“I can’t afford to do what Sheriff Arpaio is doing,” said Sheriff Tony Estrada of Santa Cruz County, one of four Arizona border counties. “He can do a lot of crazy things with his resources. We can’t. We’re strapped.”

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