BY MATTHEW HUTCHINS
Phoenix, the fastest growing major city in the country, with a population of over 1.7 million, has just surpassed Philadelphia to become the fifth largest metropolis in the nation. But this rising star in the Southwest has an estimated 300,000 undocumented immigrant residents, leading to a rising xenophobic discontent among local residents and increasing burdens on law enforcement, especially due to the organized crime operations smuggling immigrants across the border.
Mayor Phil Gordon of Phoenix, speaking at Harvard Law School on February 5th, said that the steady flow of illegal immigrants into his city has created a crisis situation that is extremely dangerous for local law enforcement and a devastating drain on the city’s budget. Although by statistical measures Phoenix is one of the safest cities in the United States, it has experienced a wave of kidnapping and violent crimes that have challenged its law enforcement capacity. The problem, said Mayor Gordon, is the violent behavior of the “coyotes” involved in human trafficking operations across the nearby Mexican border and who regularly kidnap, torture, rape and kill those who do not comply with their extortion, sometimes forcing captives to dig their own graves while awaiting either freedom or death.
According to Gordon, over 20,000 people, including women and children, have been rescued by Phoenix police over the last three years from “drop houses” where dozens or even hundreds are held captive or even tortured, sometimes in the midst of ordinary suburban neighborhoods. These people, who have often paid the coyotes for transit into the United States, become victims of what Gordon called modern slavery when the coyotes seek to extort more money out of them. “While I don’t condone the initial breaking of our federal law to enter this country, I also understand the reasons . . . the same reasons my grandparents had, to benefit their children and their children’s children.”
Gordon said that the fight against the coyotes’ organized crime has forced the city to hire over 600 additional police officers, many to replace the 100 full-time officers assigned to federal task forces investigating violent criminals and 50 officers embedded undercover in federal operations. The cost to Phoenix of employing these 150 officers, over $15 million dollars a year, is not reimbursed by the federal government and threatens to force reductions in city services like libraries and after school programs.
Mayor Gordon says that his city’s police do not operate in the same manner as the sheriff of Maricopa County, Joe Arpaio, and that Phoenix police officers’ primary goal is to protect the innocent from being killed or sold into slavery. He denied any policy of officers rounding up day workers “just because of the color of their skin” but recognized that the county sheriff’s operations had raised cause for alarm.
Unfortunately, Gordon said the immigration situation has opened the door for right-wing extremists to grandstand their hateful beliefs without fear. He expressed extreme concern at the presence of “Nazi hate groups that wrap the flag around themselves in the name of patriotism and spew vile anti-semitism and racist rhetoric.” The public presence of these radicals has further increased the burden on the police, as clashing demonstrations of extremists and counter-extremists have required police involvement to prevent violence.
Now those individuals who had to hide in the dark, under a rock like a snake, feel free to come out.” But Gordon emphasized that his city will continue to fight to protect the human rights of the victims of the coyote criminal organizations. “With rights come responsibilities, and although those hate-mongers don’t care about responsibilities, we must.”
Nonetheless, Gordon expressed urgent concern about the state of immigration law in the United States. He believes that immediate action is necessary to reform immigration policy and assist burdened local police. “I couldn’t and wouldn’t stay silent any longer, not only because of the economic costs, but also because of the cost in human suffering.”