Immigration law means few Tucson deportations

Posted at 12:45 PM, Dec 13, 2015

Arizona's contentious 2010 immigration law has resulted in few deportations from the Tucson area.

An analysis of records by the Arizona Daily Star shows Tucson police ran 26,000 immigration checks for the 16-month period ending Oct. 2. Of all of those checks, 83 people were taken into custody by the U.S. Border Patrol.

The law requires police, while in enforcing other laws, to question people's immigration status if they're suspected to be in the country illegally. It also requires checks on the immigration status of all arrested people before they can be released from custody.

The overwhelming majority of the 26,000 checks Tucson police documented were based on the requirement that an arrested person's status be checked before being released. Only 51 checks were done because an officer suspected the person was in the country illegally.

Even when police found someone in this country illegally and called Border Patrol, agents didn't always show up, often because the suspect wasn't considered a high priority for deportation.

"Ninety-nine-plus percent of the time our efforts were really not finding people that the Border Patrol was interested in coming to take custody of or to deport," said Tucson Police Chief Roberto Villasenor.

Border agents choose when to respond and whether to take someone into custody based on federal priorities. For example, people who have been in this country for many years and have no criminal record are low on the government's list of concerns.

The Tucson Police Department started a database of its officers' immigration checks in June 2014, after a Daily Star investigation found that the department's paper records were incomplete and difficult to search. The records didn't capture every call to the Border Patrol because some officers were using their cellphones to call border agents directly, leaving dispatchers with no record the inquiry ever happened.

Most of the cases in which the Border Patrol took someone into custody after a call from Tucson police -- 55 of 83 -- happened before December 2014, when the agency narrowed its policies to reflect updated national immigration enforcement priorities. The Department of Homeland Security has chosen to focus its limited resources on deporting recent border crossers, those with felonies or significant misdemeanors, and gang members or suspected terrorists who pose a threat to national security.

Tucson police officers are still charged with calling department records personnel when they arrest someone or if they have reasonable suspicion someone is in this country illegally. But now, the operator calls the Border Patrol only if a criminal-history check reveals that the suspect meets one of those federal enforcement priorities.

Also, as of February, Tucson police officers don't question witnesses, crime victims or passengers about their immigration status. Previously Villasenor had said that a blanket exemption on a group such as crime victims, which the city and immigrant advocates wanted, would open the city to a lawsuit under a clause of the law that lets people sue if they think the law is not being fully enforced.