PHOENIX (Reuters) - Frustrated by a steady flow of illegal Mexican immigrants into Arizona, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has decided to take matters into his own hands.
Arpaio dispatches teams of sheriff's deputies into Hispanic communities where they stop people and arrest anyone who cannot prove he or she is a legal U.S. resident.
Now he faces an onslaught of criticism from Hispanic activists, local lawmakers and the Phoenix mayor, who call his crackdown on immigrants a clear case of racial profiling in which only people who look Hispanic are targeted.
"What right does a mayor or a police chief, or anyone like that, have to tell me what my priorities are?" Arpaio said in a recent interview. "I'm the elected sheriff. I tell them what their priorities are."
But Mary Rose Wilcox, a county supervisor and longtime Hispanic activist says, "All he is doing is going after everybody with a brown face."
"There's no doubt in my mind that this is racial profiling. None."
Across the country, state and local officials have taken steps to curb illegal immigration. More than 240 immigration-related measures were passed last year.
Arpaio says he has received an outpouring of support for his effort in the form of letters and donations of about $25,000 from the public to help fund the initiative.
Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon said the sheriff's "made-for-TV stunts" have not stopped illegal immigration and violate the basic civil rights afforded all people in the United States.
"It's a single standard," Gordon said. "If you're brown, you're going to be pulled over, and if you're white, you're not. It's as simple as that."
Under the U.S. Constitution, all citizens must be treated equally under the law and the government cannot conduct unreasonable searches and seizures without probable cause.
In April, Gordon sent a letter to the U.S. Attorney General calling for an investigation into Arpaio's patrols.
U.S. Justice Department officials are "monitoring the situation," department spokeswoman Jamie Hais said. She declined to be more specific.
LACK OF LEADERSHIP
Immigration, specifically what do about 12 million illegal immigrants living in the United States, is a divisive issue, but it has largely dropped out of the political debate this election year.
A bid to push a comprehensive immigration overhaul through Congress was nixed by Republican lawmakers last year and the issue is barely mentioned by Republican presidential candidate John McCain or Democratic rival Barack Obama, who both supported the U.S. Senate bill.
In the absence of federal action, states and localities are beginning to take action.
Despite criticism, Arpaio has vowed to continue his patrols and other measures designed to stem the flow of illegal immigrants.
"They just don't want me enforcing the illegal immigration laws. They think they can intimidate me. They can't," said Arpaio, a Republican, who is running for re-election in November.
Gordon said Arpaio should spend his time and limited resources pursuing other more serious criminals like drug and human traffickers, and violent criminals.
The mayor said Arpaio's tactics have not reduced crime in the region or curbed illegal immigration. Instead, Gordon says the sheriff has soured community relations and sparked fear among Hispanic citizens and immigrants.
"His Band-Aid publicity stunts aren't going to solve illegal immigration," he said. "It doesn't do anything to stop the flow. All it does is make for good TV."
(Editing by Tim Gaynor and Mary Milliken)