Hispanic deputies supply most of the manpower for the sheriff’s human smuggling unit, an impossible-to-overlook ethnic composition for a squad that busts virtually only Hispanic suspects.
The Hispanic-vs.-Hispanic dynamic produces a troubling culture clash for some deputies and some segments of the community alike.
Overall, 13 of the 18 supervisors, deputies and detention officers assigned to the squad are Hispanic. That’s about 72 percent of the squad, compared with 21 percent Hispanic personnel at the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office generally.
The squad’s ethnic composition is an unintentional consequence of staffing the squad with fluent Spanish speakers, said Lt. Joe Sousa, the human smuggling unit’s top supervisor. In fact, the only non-Spanish speakers are the three supervisors, two of whom are white.
Most of the deputies on the squad grew up in Spanish-speaking households. They are the sons and grandsons of immigrants. At least one is an immigrant himself.
At least some of the deputies and the residents they serve struggle to come to terms with the Hispanic-vs.-Hispanic aspect of the unit’s work.
“You feel you’re being betrayed by your own people. It shouldn’t be that way,” said Pastor Alejandro Pina of Pacto de Graci, a Spanish-language evangelical nondenominational church in Phoenix.
It’s a form of Hispanic-on-Hispanic racism, Pina said in Spanish. Members of the church’s congregation are fearful of being in public. Church attendance has dropped in recent months, in part, because of stepped-up enforcement, he said.
“I’ve been stopped many times,” Pina said. “And when I am stopped by an Anglo officer, he’ll explain to me what’s happening and so forth. But when I’m pulled over by a Hispanic police officer, he’ll tell me right away, 'Where are you from? Are you legally in the country?’ ”
Deputies have had long discussions about U.S. immigration policy, said Deputy Juan Silva, a naturalized U.S. citizen who was born in Mexico.
“Most of us have our disagreements about what we do, but we’re all pretty much along the same line of thinking — we want to rescue hostages, we want to catch coyotes, we want to get the smuggling organizations,” he said in May after cuffing a suspected smuggler in Wickenburg.
Smugglers, who are called “coyotes,” often kidnap, rob and threaten their customers, who are called “pollos,” the Spanish word for “chickens,” according to Maricopa County deputies and other law enforcement officials. Occasionally, smugglers rape, beat or murder their clients.
“They don’t treat those people as human beings. They treat them as merchandise,” Silva said. “My concern is I had relatives assaulted and robbed trying to cross illegally, so I feel for the people and sacrifices they make to come over and work. So, I have turmoil.”
Some illegal immigrants, noting his authentic accent, have realized he’s Mexican-born and have asked whether he feels remorse for arresting them. On occasion, he’s told them his story.
Silva’s father owned a large farm in the Mexican state of Chihuahua, where the family raised crops and livestock. But his father gave up farming and took his family to the United States during tough times.
In that era, long before the 2001 terrorist attacks, Mexican nationals were able to cross back and forth between their home country and the United States fairly easily. “Times have changed,” Silva said.
He acknowledged his value to the human smuggling detail as a Spanish speaker, but he said he wouldn’t mind a transfer to different assignment, either.
The circumstances that led Sheriff Joe Arpaio to stockpile Hispanic deputies to the unit are reasonable, said Conrado Gomez, a clinical assistant professor of education at Arizona State University who speaks on minority issues.
“If he wants to deal with undocumented workers who are Spanish-speaking, then he would select bilingual deputies. On that basis, I can see some justification — we want the best communicators out there. But in terms of PR, I’m not too sure that it’s the best move,” said Gomez, a former teacher and principal at bilingual elementary and middle schools in Tucson for 38 years.
Those in the Hispanic community widely respect law enforcement officials, but they see Arpaio’s illegal immigration patrols as politically motivated, he said.
“It’s sort of like a double jeopardy sort of thing. These officers are obviously apprehending people of their own ethnic group — and that’s not being seen very well by the general Hispanic community,” said Gomez, a Mexican immigrant.
Gomez thinks Spanish-speaking deputies who are assigned to the human smuggling unit often ask themselves if they’re being used to the best of their abilities.
“These officers are really going through a difficult time, I can guarantee you. They have been given an order, yes, but their heart is telling them, 'Aye, is this the right? Should I be doing this? Potentially I could be apprehending a distant relative,’” Gomez said.
Deputy Alfredo Navarrette, who also grew up in a Spanish-speaking household, said he sometimes feels conflict while on the job. Yet, the economic and security threats posed by illegal immigration are compelling, he said.
Based on his experiences on the detail, he believes half of the illegal immigrants he encounters want the short-term benefits associated with U.S. residency, but not the long-term responsibilities of U.S. citizenship.
“All of our families did the same thing — all of our mothers and fathers — but the difference is our parents knew there was a certain amount of time that they needed to get their citizenship, receive their legal permanent resident status,” Navarrette said as he helped process nine suspected illegal immigrants at the agency’s Surprise substation one night.
“Now, it’s just, 'C’mon over, work and make lots and lots of money and send it back to Mexico,’” he said. “Yeah, you’re helping out your family, but you’re not trying to get your paperwork straight, your citizenship, your residency.”
Navarrette also believes illegal immigrants keep wages depressed by accepting below-market pay. He points to his uncle, an experienced block layer, who should be able to command $20 to $25 an hour. Instead, his uncle has to compete in a labor pool composed largely of illegal immigrants. As a result, Navarrette said, his uncle is able to earn just $10 to $18 an hour.
Out-of-control illegal immigration also raises serious concerns about national security, Navarrette said. If block layers are able to cross into the country, terrorists are as well, he said.
Deputy Hector Martinez, who grew up in a Spanish-speaking household in a border town on the U.S. side of the border, said he understands why some officers feel conflict. But he doesn’t.
“I treat everyone the same. I mean, if they break the law, it’s the law,” he said.
“I know why they’re here — to work. But you have to think about the other stuff. They’re breaking the law. They get paid under the table. They don’t pay taxes. They use other people’s names,” Martinez said.
None of those issues mattered much to Juan Angel Huerta-Bandala, an admitted illegal immigrant from Mexico, whom Silva, Navarrette and Martinez helped arrest, fingerprint and interview one night in May.
He surveyed the sheriff’s office substation in Surprise, where he and 10 other Hispanic suspected illegal immigrants were locked up and were being processed by about 10 Hispanic deputies.
He shook his head.
“I don’t understand why they do it,” he said in Spanish.