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By Dan Pochoda, Legal Director, ACLU of Arizona

Yesterday, the Department of Justice sent a letter to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. The letter (PDF) began: "This is to inform you that the United States Department of Justice is commencing an investigation of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office…"  After years of skepticism about the "upside down" civil rights division in the past administration, it was a uniquely welcome moment.

The importance of this announcement cannot be underestimated for folks in Arizona, nor the level of disappointment that a failure to effectively follow through would engender. Arpaio, along with Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas and their allies in the Arizona legislature, have had free reign during the past five years to implement a reactionary agenda based on images of brown hordes ending the "American" way of life. In his obsessive quest for "illegals," Arpaio has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars literally terrorizing communities of color that consist overwhelmingly of hard-working persons — most U.S.citizens. As stated by one county supervisor, "if you have brown skin there is not anything you can do to not be stopped."

The past year we've seen the beginning of an effective resistance movement focusing on Arpaio and on abuses by other local law enforcement agencies throughout the country that are empowered to enforce federal immigration law. Activists, religious groups and a few public officials have taken stands in opposition to Arpaio's racist practices — an unpopular and at times risky position. Unfortunately, then Arizona Governor Janet Napolitano, now Homeland Security Chief, was not amongst these persons, and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) remains deafeningly silent in the face of Arpaio's continuing human rights violations.

Yesterday's letter from the Civil Rights Division of the DOJ incorporates language from the complaint in the ongoing racial profiling litigation against Arpaio brought by the ACLU of Arizona, the ACLU Immigrants' Rights Project and Mexican-American Legal Defense and Education Fund with lead firm Steptoe & Johnson. The letter demonstrates that effective organizing and advocacy can result in local and national attention and criticism.

Arpaio's actions and the use of local law enforcement to unfairly target Latinos has become an overarching question of pragmatism versus principle. The response of the DOJ and ultimately ICE — and Congress — will reveal which path the new administration takes.

Originally posted to ACLU on Wed Mar 11, 2009 at 02:36 PM PDT.

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