Immigration rights groups in a lawsuit filed on Wednesday accused Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio of overstepping his bounds as a local official by using anti-identity theft laws to target undocumented immigrants in workplace raids.
Puente Arizona, an immigrant rights groups, filed the lawsuit in federal court, along with two women who were arrested by Arpaio's deputies last year and a local minister who contends the sheriff is squandering his tax dollars by conducting the operations.
The lawsuit represents the latest challenge by advocates for immigrants against Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County who bills himself as "America's Toughest Sheriff" and has become a divisive figure in the national immigration debate.
Arpaio is the only local law enforcement official in Arizona enforcing state laws that make it illegal for a person to use information belonging to someone else, such as a Social Security number, to obtain employment, said Dan Pochoda, legal director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona, which is one of the groups representing the plaintiffs.
"We know from past experience that when the (Maricopa County Sheriff's Office) gets into the business of immigration enforcement, it's a recipe for discrimination and abuse," Pochoda said in a statement.
A federal judge last year ordered Arpaio to stop using race as a factor when making law enforcement decisions, in response to a 2007 lawsuit that tested whether police could target unauthorized immigrants without also profiling U.S. citizens and legal residents of Hispanic origin.
In their lawsuit filed on Wednesday, immigrant rights advocates said Arpaio has no right under the U.S. Constitution to target illegal immigrants because that is the jurisdiction of the federal government.
Attorneys who filed the suit are seeking a judge's order requiring Arpaio from enforcing the identify theft laws. It was filed as a proposed class action, with attorneys seeking to represent all workers subject to arrest and detention by Arpaio's office under those laws.
Arpaio, in a phone interview, said the lawsuit is frivolous, and that his office has arrested over 800 people in connection with identity theft by employees.
"Identity thieves will not get sanctuary in Maricopa County as long as I am sheriff,” Arpaio said. "This is a very serious crime, identity theft.”
Arpaio said his office does not specifically intend to target illegal immigrants with the operations but that many of those arrested turn out to be undocumented.
(Reporting by Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles; Editing by Ken Wills)