The campaign for Maricopa County Attorney opened a new rift on immigration and the global role of the United States, as Republican incumbent Andrew Thomas blasted Democratic challenger Tim Nelson for representing illegal immigrants for free while serving as a private attorney.
On Sept. 15, Thomas attacked Nelson's "pro-illegal-immigration record" and demanded that Nelson make public his record of defense work for illegal immigrants.
Nelson responded quickly to Thomas' claim and accused the county attorney of conducting a desperate ploy by misrepresenting his representation of two immigrants in federal proceedings during the mid-1990s.
He noted that both cases called into question by Thomas dealt with two immigrants seeking political asylum in the United States; a soldier that fled Guatemala, and a Chinese teenager that was smuggled into the country.
During a Sept. 15 press conference, Thomas said a "fundamental difference" exists between him and his challenger, whom he accused of "catering to the illegal immigrant community" and as unwilling to prosecute people that enter the country illegally.
"I prosecute illegal immigrants, and my opponent defends them," Thomas said. "My opponent has found the time in his legal career, not to do anything to crack down on illegal immigration, but to represent illegal immigrants for free in federal court."
Nelson said Thomas mischaracterized his work. He said he managed a legal team to represent Francisco Rafael Rodriguez-Fajardo, who claimed to have fled his country after receiving death threats for his reporting of war crimes against peasants by the Guatemalan army during the 1990s.
Rodriguez-Fajardo was ultimately granted citizenship, as was Jian Chen, who reportedly was threatened with imprisonment by the Chinese government after a family member was unable to pay back almost $200,000 in debt.
Chen, according to legal documents, feared imprisonment by the People's Republic of China and also torture, dismemberment or death at the hands of a Chinese criminal syndicate that he relied on to smuggle him into the United States.
"Thomas tried to paint these cases as unwarranted defenses of illegal immigration," Nelson said during a sparsely attended press conference on Sept. 16. "He could not be more wrong. Each case resulted in lawful immigration into our country, and both cases demonstrate why America represents a shining light to the rest of the world."
Nelson, flanked by members of a local law enforcement union, said he wanted to remind Thomas that he penned an executive order for Janet Napolitano that sent National Guard soldiers to patrol the border and another decree requiring contractors ensure their workforces are legal.
Nelson argued that, if elected, he will use the conspiracy charge – along with other tools, such as U visas – to go higher up the food chain to secure the testimony needed to break up the coyotes' organized crime rings.
"I will vigorously prosecute the organized syndicates that make large scale illegal immigration possible, and pose the greatest danger to public safety," he said. "While our priority must be on prosecuting the violent coyotes who facilitate large scale illegal immigration, and pose the real threat to public safety, I have specifically and consistently maintained it would be a mistake to forfeit the option of prosecuting their human cargo as co-conspirators.
Nelson also used the occasion to reiterate his claims that Thomas has misused the power of the office for personal gain and to enrich private attorneys that have contributed to his campaign.
He drew upon the Maricopa County Attorney's Office attempted prosecution of the managing editors of the New Times, who were arrested after publishing an article describing sweeping subpoenas obtained against the paper by a contracted attorney.
"Mr. Thomas does not want to discuss the New Times subpoenas which invaded the privacy of thousands of Maricopa County newspaper readers – or the Soviet-style arrest of the paper's editors."
Thomas spokesman Barnett Lotstein said the fact that Nelson's pro-bono clients sought asylum "did not matter at all" and that he was not aware whether Thomas had knowledge of the details of their cases when he held his press conference.
"Even if a person claims asylum, that's after they entered the country illegally," said Barnett Lotstein, a spokesman for Thomas. "It doesn't change the fact that the person is an illegal immigrant."