Justice Department sues Arizona sheriff in immigration probe
WASHINGTON/PHOENIX (Reuters) - The Justice Department on Thursday sued an Arizona sheriff for refusing to cooperate with its investigation into allegations he and his police force discriminate against Hispanics in his program to crack down on illegal immigrants.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has conducted regular arrest sweeps to try to round up illegal immigrants and smugglers in the state that has borne the brunt of people trying to sneak into the United States illegally from Mexico.
Arpaio's crackdown on illegal immigrants has helped thrust the issue to the forefront nationally. The Obama administration is in a legal wrangle with Arizona over a strict new law against illegal immigration that the state passed in April.
The Justice Department had been in negotiations with Arpaio to obtain documents related to the crackdown as well as access to the county's jails, but those talks broke down and the agency filed a lawsuit to compel his cooperation.
"It is unfortunate that the department was forced to resort to litigation to gain access to public documents and facilities," Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the Justice Department's civil rights division, said in a statement.
Hispanic activists, civic authorities and civil rights activists have criticized Arpaio's sweeps as tantamount to racial profiling, a charge Arpaio has denied.
The sheriff said in a statement that during a meeting last week between with Justice Department officials his lawyers committed to cooperate, provide access to his staff and his jails.
"They smiled in our faces and then stabbed us in the back with this lawsuit," Arpaio said. "The Obama administration intended to sue us all along, no matter what we did to try to avert it."
Arizona officials have complained that illegal immigrants are contributing to a rise in crime and violence along the porous U.S. border with Mexico where drug traffickers and smugglers regularly cross.
However, preliminary FBI statistics show a drop in violent and property crimes in major cities in Arizona in 2009.
Also, a new report by the Pew Hispanic Center said the number of illegal
immigrants in the United States dropped to 11.1 million in March 2009 from a peak of 12 million in 2007, likely because of the sour economy and increased enforcement.
In July, a federal judge in Arizona blocked the state from enforcing a strict new immigration law that would have required police to determine the immigration status of a person detained or arrested if the officer believed the person was not in the country legally.
The department's civil rights division began its investigation more than two years ago after allegations that the sheriff's office was engaged in discriminatory conduct.
Last March, the Justice Department requested a myriad of documents and advised the sheriff's office that the probe would also include tours of facilities as well as interviews with senior officials, line officers and jail inmates.
The Justice Department said that because the county sheriff's office has received millions of dollars in federal funding, Arpaio and his office are required to cooperate with the federal probe.
The "refusal to cooperate with reasonable requests for information regarding the use of federal funds is a violation of (their) statutory, regulatory, and contractual obligations," the Justice Department said in its lawsuit.
In a letter to the Justice Department last week, Arpaio's lawyer called it "simply unreasonable" for the Justice Department to request any document it wants, to access any facility it seeks and to interview any witness it wants without any limits.
(Editing by Vicki Allen and Doina Chiacu)
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