Special Reports

Victims … or co-conspirators? A clash of viewpoints

If there is a fault line between America’s war on human trafficking and the battle over illegal immigration, it runs through Maricopa County, Ariz.

That’s where world-famous Sheriff Joe Arpaio is using a 2005 state law aimed at smugglers of illegal immigrants to also go after the “smugglees” who paid to get here.

Arpaio arrests them as co-conspirators in their own smuggling.

“It only makes sense,” Arpaio said in a recent interview. “They are part of the criminal act, but we are still the only county in the state enforcing it.”

While the sheriff is cheered on by illegal immigration hard- liners, however, others suggest that some of those “co-conspirators” could also be human trafficking victims.

In fact, immigration experts argue that tighter border restrictions and resulting higher smuggling costs have put illegal migrants at an ever-greater risk of being abused and, ultimately enslaved by their smuggler.

But Arpaio doesn’t buy it.

“That’s just another thing for the open border people and the politicians to always come up with a rationale,” Arpaio said. “It’s just another way to let them (illegal immigrants) stay.”

Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas, who has successfully prosecuted numerous co-conspirators, agrees. “While everyone can sympathize with people in poor countries who yearn for a better life, the law is the law and people are not allowed to conspire to smuggle themselves illegally into Arizona.”

Even if the person being smuggled is abused, Thomas said, “we still don’t issue a pardon” to the illegal immigrant.

Arpaio has continued his sweeps for illegal immigrants, even after the government rescinded his federal authority to pursue immigrants and opened an investigation of alleged Latino profiling by his department.

“This is absurd; I live in an unreal county,” said Arizona state Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, a Phoenix Democrat who helped push the 2005 state law. “Thomas is a maniac. He is prosecuting the victims of these crimes as co-conspirators in their own victimhood.”

So could some of those “co-conspirators” be human trafficking victims under federal law? And if so, are Maricopa County officials violating the federal anti-trafficking act?

“In theory, absolutely they could qualify as human trafficking victims,” said Kara Hartzler, legal director for the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.

“But most of them don’t want to sit in jail long enough to make that claim.”