Manuel Espinoza-Vazquez has lived in the United States since he was 3 years old. A longtime Gilbert resident, the 20-yearold Arizona State University junior never planned to become the poster child for the growing immigration debate in Gilbert.
Espinoza-Vazquez faces deportation by the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement after being pulled over in March on suspicion of an improper right-hand turn; he was subsequently charged with underage alcohol consumption.
His is one of two Gilbert police cases turned over to federal authorities that have caught the public’s eye and caused more than 30 e-mails and calls to town officials from people either supporting police contacting immigration authorities or calling for more understanding.
“They’re generalizing everyone as criminals, basically,” said Espinoza-Vazquez, whose parents brought him to the U.S. illegally. “Here I am trying to get an education and make a difference.”
The other incident, also in March, involved the deportation by federal authorities of three teenagers who Gilbert police say were drag racing and driving at least 22 mph over the speed limit.
As the immigration debate escalates in Gilbert, town and police officials want to reach out to Hispanic advocates in an attempt to ease growing tensions.
“There’s a lot of concern,” said Tami Smull, chairwoman for the town’s Human Relations Commission. “And I think there are good folks with good intentions on both sides of the argument. Without sitting down and talking, it creates ill will because of misunderstanding.”
The commission and Gilbert police are talking about holding regular public forums to address issues and concerns with the Hispanic community, Gilbert police Sgt. Andrew Duncan said
The town is also seeking guidance from Mesa, where police Chief George Gascón has been holding regular forums with the Hispanic community and other groups, Duncan said.
Local Hispanic advocate Magdalena Schwartz is calling for such a community forum, which she said dramatically decreased concerns in Mesa and caused more illegal residents to contact police to report crimes. Residents want to hear from Gilbert police Chief Tim Dorn himself about what the policy is for contacting immigration authorities, she said.
“I think they can learn, and we can learn and have a relationship,” she said. “We can fix problems, and we can have a safe community.”
Vice Mayor Dave Crozier has been meeting with Schwartz and other advocates, who last month protested at Gilbert and Baseline roads about the deportations. Also taking part in what are planned to be monthly meetings with Gilbert policy makers are Councilmen Don Skousen and Steve Urie.
Crozier said it’s important that town policy makers are the ones to write the code dictating when and whether officers should contact immigration authorities when dealing with suspects who may be here illegally.
He has asked town staff to research other area policies in preparation of a town proposal, which would trump police policy now used.
If a town code is voted on, officials are split on what it should be, and whether it should mirror the police policy now followed.
Crozier said he’d support a policy that allows police to contact immigration authorities for serious crimes such as robbery, but that some traffic violations, even “criminal” ones, may not be the right reason to deport someone.
Mayor Steve Berman said he wants all illegal immigrants discovered during the investigation of any law violation to be turned over to immigration authorities. While Berman had agreed to meet with advocates, he now says he’s done talking with the group that has “burned” him with ongoing criticism, even after he went to their protest to hear their concerns.
“Nobody thanked me for walking into a crowd of people mad at me,” he said. “Nobody said that’s a gutsy thing to do.”
A March 15 directive from Dorn gives guidance to officers on when to contact immigration authorities based on current police policy.
The directive states ICE may be contacted in the case of dangerous and serious criminal activity, gang activity, human smuggling, and identity theft. The directive also states that officers are prohibited from racial profiling, or contacting suspects for the sole purpose of determining immigration status.
Skousen said the town can’t approve of a policy that always ignores immigration violations. “I know we do not want what has happened in Mesa to happen in Gilbert,” he said, “with the loss of property values, and the whole areas inhabited by people that are here illegally.”