Congressional hearings on local immigration enforcement Thursday repeatedly focused on racial profiling allegations against the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office.
However, the House Judiciary Committee did not keep its attention there during a wide-ranging debate over the "287(g)" program, which grants state and local law enforcement federal authority to identify and arrest illegal immigrants.
And by the hearings' end, scrutiny had turned from Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio to Mesa Police Chief George Gascón. Specifically, congressmen questioned about who paid for Gascón's trip to Washington, D.C., to testify.
The hearings opened with testimony from Julio Cesar Mora, a 19-year-old Avondale resident. Mora told the committee that around 5 a.m. Feb. 11, MCSO deputies in two black SUVs pulled over the vehicle Mora and his father rode in shortly before they arrived for work at Handyman Maintenance in Phoenix.
MCSO was raiding the landscaping firm at the time.
Deputies had arrest warrants for roughly 40 suspected illegal immigrants working for the firm, which had a contract to do work for Maricopa County.
Mora said he was born in the United States and that his father became a U.S. citizen long ago.
Regardless, Mora said, deputies detained them and placed their wrists in zip-tie handcuffs. Deputies patted down the father and son and held them for three hours without criminal charges or a known probable cause, Mora said.
"I don't know why the officers stopped us out of all the vehicles on the road," Mora said.
MCSO Deputy Doug Matteson declined to comment on Mora's allegations Thursday, adding the sheriff's office is looking into the matter.
The hearings were intended to focus on the 287(g) program, named after the provision in federal immigration law that created it. The program allows Immigration and Customs Enforcement to formally partner with state, local police and correctional systems to apprehend illegal immigrants.
The federal government connects partner agencies to the federal database of known illegal immigrants and provides officers with training, making them quasi-federal agents.
Much of the hearing focused on personal anecdotes, like Mora's.
The Judiciary Committee also heard from Ray Tranchant, a Virginia resident whose daughter was killed by an illegal immigrant who was driving drunk in 2007. The drunken driver should have been deported twice before the fatal crash after alcohol-related convictions.
"It takes undesirable people and puts them at the back of the immigration line," Tranchant said of the 287(g) program. "If you're a drunk, go home. If you're a murderer, go home."
Kris Kobach, a University of Missouri-Kansas City law professor and former special counsel to the U.S. Attorney General, told the committee that the program has led to 43,000 deportations.
From 2001-03, Kobach helped negotiate ICE's first two partnerships with state police agencies in Florida and Alabama.
Since then, the number of 287(g) partnerships has grown exponentially, to 67 agencies employing almost 1,000 federally trained officers.
If the program were causing serious problems, Kobach said agencies wouldn't be lining up to partner with ICE.
"Anyone is free to leave the program," Kobach said. "No one has."
Only two of the eight witnesses were from Maricopa County, but the testimony kept going back to Arpaio.
MCSO has the largest contingent of such agents: 100 deputies and 60 detention officers.
Arpaio has also conducted several high-profile immigration enforcement operations, some in largely Hispanic neighborhoods without evidence of criminal activity.
Gascón, an Arpaio critic, said police officers targeting illegal immigrants breeds distrust with minority communities.
"The impact on local law enforcement in this politically charged environment can be devastating," he said.
Prior to the hearing, Gascón had said that he did not intend to discuss Arpaio.
But under questioning, Gascón recounted last year's immigration raid on Mesa City Hall and generally criticized Arpaio's immigration enforcement.
Arpaio had several defenders among the committee's Republicans.
"The reason that I don't believe Sheriff Arpaio is guilty of racial profiling, as some have said, is simply my own observations and he has personally assured me that this is not the case," said Rep. Trent Franks, R-Ariz.
Further, Franks said illegal immigrants commit 53 percent of Maricopa County's violent crimes. "Racial profiling is taking place based on that statistical reality," he said.
Franks did not cite a source for the figure.
An analysis of court data conducted last year by the Maricopa County Attorney's Office found that illegal immigrants were convicted in 16 percent of the county's violent crime cases. County attorney Andrew Thomas is a staunch opponent of illegal immigration and a close Arpaio ally.
The hearings ended with a tense exchange between Gascón and Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, over the police chief's travel expenses.
"Who paid your way to get here today?" Poe asked. Gascón replied by repeating the question.
"You heard me," Poe said. "Who paid your way?"
"A group of nonprofit organizations that are seeking immigration reform," Gascón answered.
"Would you agree with the statement that we dance with the one who brung us?" Poe said, suggesting that Gascón was essentially paid for his testimony.
The police chief bristled at Poe's comment, reciting his military service and long law enforcement career.
"I don't dance with anyone," Gascón replied.