Judge mulls whether to block laws that provide legal foundation for Arizona sheriff's raids

PHOENIX – Advocates for immigrants urged a judge Thursday to shelve two Arizona ID theft laws that are the legal foundation for business raids by metro Phoenix’s sheriff, arguing the Legislature’s intent in passing the statutes wasn’t to confront identity theft but rather to combat illegal immigration.

The state’s lawyers, meanwhile, told U.S. District Judge David Campbell that the argument about the Legislature’s intent was off-point and explained that the laws were passed strictly to address the pervasive problem of identity theft within communities.

Campbell is mulling arguments over whether to shelve both laws that Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s office has used to conduct business raids in which hundreds of immigrant workers have been charged with using fake or stolen IDs to get jobs.

Annie Lai, an attorney leading the challenge, cited comments that a lawmaker made during a debate over one of the laws in which the legislator said he wanted the statute to prompt immigrants to “self-deport.” Lai also argued that Arpaio and prosecutors should be barred from enforcing the laws while Campbell decides the larger issues of the case, because she said the state laws are trumped by federal immigration statutes.

“Arizona is not permitted to invade the area of regulation that Congress is already regulating,” Lai said.

Ann Thompson Uglietta, an attorney representing the county’s top prosecutor, said the law’s purpose wasn’t to confront illegal immigration but rather to combat identity theft. Uglietta said there’s no conflict between state and federal law.

“This is a state identity theft law that is a legitimate exercise of police powers,” Uglietta said.

The 2007 and 2008 laws were revamped versions of Arizona’s identity theft statutes that made it a new crime to use fake or stolen IDs for the purpose of getting or keeping jobs. They were part of a package of legislation that sought to confront employers who hire immigrants who are in the country illegally — and are blamed for fueling the nation’s border woes.

Arpaio’s office has conducted 83 business raids since the law took effect in 2008, leading to the arrests of more than 700 immigrants. Only one employer has been criminally charged in those investigations.

Lawyers who have represented the immigrants in criminal ID theft cases have said their clients used fake or stolen identities to get jobs, not to rack up debt under another person’s name. Typically, the immigrants plead guilty to a felony, frequently face deportation and are unable to ever re-enter the U.S. legally.

Supporters of the ID theft laws say immigrants who steal identities to get jobs are still committing a crime and that victims could face difficulties such as getting loans.

The raids are one of Arpaio’s last remaining avenues for his signature immigration enforcement efforts.

The sheriff’s immigration powers first were reined in in late 2009 when Washington stripped some of his officers of their power to make federal immigration arrests. The restrictions continued when a judge ruled in May 2013 that Arpaio’s office had systematically racially profiled Latinos in patrols.

And a year ago, another judge prohibited Arpaio from using a contentious tactic in the enforcement of Arizona’s smuggling ban in which immigrants who paid to be sneaked into the country are charged with conspiring to smuggle themselves.

While other agencies make arrests under the two ID theft laws, Arpaio’s office is the only department in the state to raid businesses in enforcement of the statutes.

The hearing over the ID theft laws came a day after an appeals court struck down Arizona’s 2006 voter-approved law that denies bail to people in the country illegally who are charged with certain crimes.

The ruling marked yet another defeat for advocates of tougher immigration enforcement.

A small number of Arizona’s immigration laws have been upheld, including a key section of its landmark 2010 immigration law that requires police to check people’s immigration status under certain circumstances.

But the courts have slowly dismantled other laws that sought to draw local police into immigration enforcement.