Can local police officers be trusted to target illegal immigrants without engaging in racial profiling? Will the deportation of illegal immigrants save taxpayer money? Is enforcement at the city or county level a prudent use of local resources?

The answers to these questions could help determine how long Arizona's new immigration law lasts, and whether other states or cities adopt a similar approach. But strangely, public debate on this matter all but ignores the fact that the biggest metropolitan area in Arizona has been experimenting with aggressive local enforcement of immigration law for almost half of the last decade.

Maricopa County counts 3,954,598 residents, its seat is Phoenix, and its borders encompass more than half of the state's residents. Its Sheriff, Joe Arpaio, is internationally known for his aggressive tactics against illegal immigrants, and his department has run a human smuggling unit since 2006. Department regulations were also long ago rewritten to include immigration work in the regular duties of deputies. Extensive raids target Latino neighborhoods, and as of July 2009, The New Yorker reported that the department claims it has arrested 30,000 illegal immigrants, thanks in part to a federal program that allows local officers to be trained by the Department of Homeland Security, and afterward to act as immigration enforcement. Sheriff Arpaio's department has more officers trained in that program than any other jurisdiction in America.

In assessing the Arizona law, it is therefore instructive to ask how the intense involvement of local police in immigration enforcement has worked out in Maricopa County. A majority of voters view Sheriff Arpaio's efforts favorably, largely due to ongoing concerns about illegal immigration, especially the human trafficking and violent drug crimes that have intensified in recent years.

Even so, ample evidence suggests that the Maricopa County policy is costly, imprudent, incapable of stopping illegal immigration or human smuggling rings, and prone to serious official abuses by law enforcement personnel. Despite some successes, its overall costs far outweigh its benefits, a conclusion you'll likely share after taking a closer look at the record over the last half-decade.

THE BEST SINGLE account available is the Pulitzer Prize winning series of reports by the East Valley Tribune, a Maricopa County newspaper that took a detailed look at Sheriff Joe Arpaio's efforts at immigration enforcement dating back to 1995.

In part one of the investigation, reporters showed how the additional burden of immigration enforcement was affecting other sheriff's department responsibilities. Officers were reassigned to immigration duties away from other beats, and by 2007, some residents calling 911 in need of an emergency police response could expect to wait 16 minutes before a squad car showed up.

A subsequent story put wait times county wide at 10 minutes, more than twice as long as the target set by the local Board of Supervisors. Concurrently, arrest rates in criminal investigations fell dramatically. Overtime costs associated with immigration enforcement ran into millions of dollars, apparently covered by federal grants, and local taxpayers spent millions more on costs associated with the arrest of illegal immigrants. And astonishingly, officers in the human smuggling unit talked openly to a reporter about making up probable cause when pulling over vehicles in efforts to find illegal immigrants.

As another piece in the investigation notes, Sheriff Arpaio's efforts have been successful at catching and deporting more illegal immigrants, most of them simple laborers:

A Tribune investigation into the unit's operation shows that in 2006 and 2007, the first two years it was in place, MCSO deputies arrested only low-level participants in human smuggling rings -- a handful of drivers and drop house guards, plus hundreds of immigrants picked up mainly during highway stops as they were making their way out of the county.

In the past few months, Arpaio has expanded his operation to include "crime suppression/anti-illegal immigration" sweeps during which dozens of deputies and members of his volunteer posse target urban areas in the county to catch illegal immigrants.

His officers stop motorists who drive with broken license-plate lights or cracked windshields, or commit other traffic violations. Sometimes he catches people with outstanding criminal warrants, but the illegal immigrants he has snared in the sweeps have been simple laborers, not the top-echelon operators of smuggling operations.

These deported laborers won't be imposing costs on local emergency rooms or other social services, a constant concern of many Maricopa County taxpayers, but the cost of processing them, deporting them and the $1.3 million deficit the sheriff's department accrued due to its intense focus on immigration must be set against those savings in calculating the overall impact on local taxpayers, especially since ongoing federal failure to secure the border mean that some deportees are likely to sneak back into the country.

In assessing Maricopa County's policy of enforcing immigration laws, the conservative Goldwater Institute released a report endorsing the conclusion that the department's priorities -- and specifically its approach to immigration enforcement -- had a negative effect on public safety.


Supporters of the Arizona legislation assert that local law enforcement officials and officers can be trusted with greater discretion on matters of immigration enforcement, and that the Arizona legislature carefully established protocol that would prevent racial profiling or other official abuses.

In its past forays into immigration enforcement, however, Sheriff Joe Arpaio's department has repeatedly flaunted federal rules and local protocols, including the "Civil Rights Procedures" outlined in Maricopa County's contract with the federal government.

That isn't to say that its efforts are racist, or motivated by animosity toward Hispanics. Indeed, another overlooked feature in the national debate over the Arizona law is how many police officers in that state are themselves Hispanic. But a police officer of any ethnicity can be guilty of racial profiling, and the Maricopa County Sheriff's Department currently faces a lawsuit with multiple American citizen litigants credibly charging it with deliberate, systematic profiling of Latinos.

As the newspaper reports, "even as Arpaio's immigration program has brought MCSO into violation of federal rules on racial profiling, caused 911 response times to soar, and pushed the agency into financial crisis, the government entities responsible for keeping an eye on the agency have done little more then review reports and ask for information." Going forward, it will be quite difficult to catch abuses in Joe Arpaio's department because it actively thwarts oversight by the public, the elected officials who oversee the department, and even local judges, who cross the sheriff at their peril.

In the abstract, it may be reasonable for America's enforcement advocates to argue that local police officers can be trusted with greater discretion to enforce immigration law without abusing their authority. But in the specific case of Arizona, where Maricopa County encompasses the state's largest metropolitan area and half the population, it beggars belief that advocates of the new state law assert that the folks who'll carry it out can be trusted, given that long experience, numerous countervailing examples, and a pattern of egregious, brazen abuses teach us otherwise.


The recent history of Maricopa County suggests that local enforcement of immigration law is bad policy, prone to serious abuses of civil liberties, imposes costs on taxpayers that far outweigh its benefits, and exact a high opportunity cost as officers focus on illegal immigrant laborers while more serious crimes go unpunished and 911 calls take significantly longer to answer.

As the debate over the Arizona law continues, the actual experience of Maricopa County under Joe Arpaio and his deputies should be given greater prominence, and other municipalities considering a foray into immigration enforcement should look to the jurisdiction as cautionary tale.

Conor Friedersdorf can be reached at -- follow him on Twitter at conor64