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Arizona experiences “Largest immigrant smuggling raid in U.S. history”

While Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant bill SB 1070 awaits its fate in the hands of Governor Brewer who will decide to sign it into law on Monday, the immigration enforcement spotlight turns once again to Arizona. Led by Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE), with the full cooperation of Mexican police agencies, more than 800 agents and officers from federal, state and local law enforcement agencies carried out a massive search and arrest operation yesterday on border crossings located on either side of the border.

In what the New York Times has called the largest immigrant smuggling raid in U.S. history, the operation focused on privately run shuttle vans used to transport people across the border, resulting in the arrest of 47 people across four cities in Arizona. The raid formed the culmination of what ICE says has been a “comprehensive year-long investigation” entitled “Operation In Plain Sight.” John Morton, the director of ICE, who has come under a lot of fire in the last month, said that this was sweep was an example of a concerted effort to push immigration enforcement in the direction of going after the umbrella organizations, networks and businesses that lead smuggling efforts. The New York Times quoted John Morton -

What we are trying to do is rip this thing out by the roots…We are taking out the whole industry and giving such a shock to individuals that they won’t recover as they have in the past.

The suspects taken into custody from the cities of Phoenix, Tucson, Nogales and Rio Rico face a number of charges against them, including money laundering, smuggling and conspiracy. Given the current pressure to see immigration reform introduced into Congress, and the very recent upheaval caused by the passage of SB 1070 in Arizona’s State legislature that expands police powers to detain individuals for not having proper identification, this large-scale ICE operation has already come under a lot of criticism. From the New York Times-

Immigrant advocacy groups on Thursday denounced what they called a climate of fear and criticized the ICE operation for coming at the same time as the legislation. A handful of protesters outside the United States attorney’s office here chanted, “We are going to beat back John Morton’s attack.”

In a press release from the Arizona-based advocacy group Coalition de Derechos Humanos, they talk about the atmosphere of panic and fear that is palpable through Arizona’s immigrant community, given the threat of SB1070 coupled with yesterday’s raid. Talking about border enforcement and immigration reform, Derechos Humanos co-chair Isabel Garcia stressed the need for debates around immigration to focus on economic and political forces that motivate it, rather than framing it as a threat to national security. Decrying the impending legislation in Arizona, Garcia told Democracy Now that the state had been turned into a “laboratory of anti-immigrant measures”and that the answer lay in “real reform” rather than increased enforcement and an atmosphere of fear.

Immigrant advocates are concerned by the fact that instead of ending the Bush-era policy of “enforcement now, enforcement forever”, immigration enforcement is as harsh as ever. Moreover, the Obama administration has been critiqued for giving “mixed messages” on the issue of immigration reform and enforcement. Advocates such as Fernando Garcia, the executive director of the Border Network for Human Rights, are calling on President Obama to take a clear stand on the issue, and lead an approach to enforcement that is humane and efficient.

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