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Two police officers combat Arizona immigration law

Both feel betrayed by the legislation and say it will interfere with a fundamental law enforcement mission: protecting people.

May 06, 2010|By Paloma Esquivel, Los Angeles Times | Reporting from Tucson

In 15 years patrolling the barrios here, Officer Martin Escobar learned that it takes extraordinary effort to gain trust in an area where many fear deportation. In case after case, he has reassured people in his communities that police are around to help and that residents would not be handed over to immigration officials for reporting crimes.

"You have to build relationships," he said. "And I've done that. They trust me now."

Then came the recent passage of SB 1070, the law that makes it a state crime to lack immigration papers and requires police to determine whether people they stop are in the country illegally.

"It's going to break down everything I've worked to let people know that officers are good, that we're here to protect you," said Escobar, who as a teenager was questioned by federal authorities about his legal status.

After the law was passed, Escobar, 45, decided he could not stay neutral. Now he's inserted himself into the middle of the controversy. Last week, he filed suit in federal court against the state, city and county, saying the law will impede police investigations and lead to more crime.

Officer David Salgado, a 19-year veteran of the Phoenix Police Department, filed a separate suit in federal court, claiming the law amounts to racial profiling. Both men see the law as an affront to police work.

And both men say they feel betrayed by a law they think targets not just illegal immigrants, as the bill's sponsors argue, but people like them — Mexican Americans who have made Arizona their home.

Supporters say the law is a necessary crime-fighting tool because illegal immigration has made the state vulnerable to violence, drug trafficking and kidnappings. Suspected illegal immigrants were blamed in the recent killing of an Arizona rancher and the shooting of a sheriff's deputy last week, although no one has been charged in the incidents.

"We cannot sacrifice our safety to the murderous greed of drug cartels," Gov. Jan Brewer said at a signing ceremony for the new law.

Changes to the law after it was signed sought to address concerns about racial profiling, but both Escobar and Salgado think the revisions do little to fix what they see as the law's fundamental problems.

Law enforcement agencies in Arizona have been mixed in their response. The Phoenix Law Enforcement Assn., a union that represents thousands of officers in the Phoenix Police Department, strongly endorsed the bill, saying it would address the crime of illegal immigration and allow police officers to do their work unimpeded by unnecessary restrictions. Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has used his deputies to enforce federal immigration laws.

The reaction of their fellow officers has also been mixed, Escobar and Salgado say. Many have called to offer support. Others say it's wrong for police officers to get involved in such issues because it is their duty to enforce the law whether they agree with it or not.

The head of the Phoenix Police Department, Jack Harris, spoke out last week against the law, saying, as Escobar did, that it will make victims and witnesses of crimes afraid to call police.

"This law does not fix the immigration problem," Harris said in a news conference. "It adds new problems for local law enforcement."

Escobar had wanted to be a police officer since he was a fourth-grader growing up in Tucson and watching "Adam-12" on TV.

An immigrant from Sonora, Mexico, whose family struggled for many years, he wanted to be respected and admired, he said, as were the men in uniform on the show.

The feeling stuck, even after he was stopped by Border Patrol officers in his neighborhood and asked about his immigration status when he was in middle school.

"I can still remember the street where it happened," he said. "They stopped me and started asking me what my legal status was. It scared the heck out of me. I was thinking, 'How am I going to prove that I'm here legally?' That's the experience I felt, being afraid, wondering, 'Have I done anything wrong?' "

Now he patrols the same neighborhood on the south side of Tucson, a place with a history of drugs and gangs. He wonders if he'll be the officer asking kids on the street about their immigration status.

As a Spanish-speaking policeman, he's often asked to help on calls. He prides himself on being able to get information out of people who relate to him because, like them, he is an immigrant. And he thinks those skills make him better at the job he aspired to.

"I love my job," he said. "I love being a police officer. But because of my convictions, my beliefs, my experiences growing up in this community, I decided I had to step forward and say I want to do this."

"I knew what the consequences would be — losing friendships, being the minority out of a whole large group. But I believe in what I'm doing."

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