PHOENIX (CN) — Civil rights attorneys told a federal judge Thursday that Sheriff Joe Arpaio and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office used Arizona's identity theft laws to unconstitutionally arrest undocumented immigrants.
In 2014, Puente Arizona filed a class action against Arpaio and Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery, challenging the constitutionality of workplace raids performed by Arpaio's deputies.
Puente claims Arpaio used two state identity laws, which criminally punish people who use another person's identity to secure a job, to conduct his workplace raids. Since Puente's suit, Arpaio has disbanded the immigration investigation unit that conducted the workplace raids.
Jessica Karp Bansal, an attorney for Puente, told the court in a hearing Thursday that there is plenty of evidence the Arizona Legislature acted to pass the laws to "try to drive undocumented immigrants out of the county and out of the state."
Bansal pointed to deposition testimony by former state Rep. Ray Barnes, who sponsored one of the laws, where he said the law was "meant to address the illegal immigration problem." Bansal also referred to comments made by state Sen. Russell Pearce, a sponsor of both laws, that they were a "huge step in stopping the invasion of illegal aliens."
Pearce gained notoriety after he sponsored S.B. 1070, Arizona's controversial immigration law that was largely overturned by the U.S. Supreme Court. He was later voted out of office in a recall election.
Anne Lai, another attorney for Puente, argued that the passage of these laws created a "perfect storm" of unconstitutional actions by Arpaio and the Maricopa County Attorney's Office, which prosecuted undocumented immigrants arrested by Arpaio's deputies.
"Arizona and the county defendants have achieved what Congress feared," Lai said.
Lai also argued that despite recent findings by the Ninth Circuit that the laws were not preempted by federal law, "there is no rule that Congress has to speak explicitly."
"The federal scheme has built-in flexibiity," Lai said. "The defendants' focus is simply on retribution and bringing down the hammer."
In May, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit overturned findings by U.S. District Judge David Campbell, who oversees the class action, that the workplace raids were preempted by federal law.
"Congress could not have intended to preempt the state from sanctioning crimes that protect citizens of the state under Arizona's traditional police powers without intruding on federal immigration policy," Circuit Judge Richard Tallman wrote. "Thus, we hold that despite the state legislative history, Congress did not intend to preempt state criminal statutes like the identity theft laws."
Assistant Arizona Attorney General Dominic Draye said Congress's intent is clear in its encouragement of state governments to enforce their own laws.
"Policies and practices can't trigger preemption without congressional intent," Draye said.
Ann Uglietta, representing Maricopa County, agreed.
"This is conduct that falls naturally within the county attorney's power," Uglietta said.
Arpaio's attorney, Renee Waters, argued that Arpaio exercised "a traditional power" by allowing his deputies to arrest undocumented immigrants during workplace raids.
"His duty to uphold the laws means it's no surprise he would have enthusiastically enforced these laws," Waters said.
It's unclear when Campbell will issue his decision in the case.
The lawsuit is just one in a slew of legal problems for Arpaio, who was not present in court Thursday.
The six-term lawman faces federal criminal contempt charges lodged by the Justice Department after he violated a court order in a racial profiling class action.
He also faces a tough election race against Democratic challenger Paul Penzone. A recent poll conducted from Oct. 2-5 by Sherpa Public Affairs shows Penzone, a former Phoenix police officer, leading Arpaio by 10 points.
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