The number of inmates suspected of being illegal immigrants in Arizona’s most populous county has dropped by nearly 40 percent, despite an increase in deportations across the country over the same two-year time frame.
Just under 10,000 suspected illegal immigrants were housed in Maricopa County jails in 2010, compared with more than 16,000 in 2008.
One explanation for the decrease is that fewer people in general are committing crimes that land them in Maricopa County jail. The average number of inmates in county custody fell by 13 percent during the same time period as the 40 percent drop in immigration holds.
Also, the number of immigrants living in Arizona without authorization has decreased, meaning police encounter fewer “criminal aliens,” or illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes that would land them in county jail.
And even as local police encounter fewer illegal immigrants, federal officials have stepped up immigration-law-enforcement efforts through a variety of programs that can lead to the deportation of illegal immigrants who have not committed serious crimes after crossing the border.
Rising deportation figures include all immigrants removed from Arizona by federal agents, a population that includes immigrants from other states who are housed in one of the detention centers U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement operates or leases in Arizona.
“ICE is filling just as many detention beds in Arizona as they were three years ago,” said Kara Hartzler of the Florence Immigrant and Refugee Rights Project.
There are many illegal immigrants in custody from out of state, mostly from California, she said.
Explanations for the decline in immigrants in Maricopa County jails generally break along political lines.
Immigration-enforcement advocates credit Arizona’s track record of controversial legislation, including Senate Bill 1070, and vocal lawmen such as Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for creating an atmosphere that discourages illegal immigrants from staying in Maricopa County.
“It seems like a local government’s policies and its positions can cause a real drop in the illegal-immigration population,” said Steven Camarota, director of research with the Center for Immigration Studies, a research institute that supports strict immigration enforcement. “With all those caveats of ‘It’s an imperfect measure,’ it does seem that the decline in Arizona was much more manifest than elsewhere.”
But immigrant-rights advocates and others point to the economy as a key factor driving illegal immigrants out of Arizona, just as the recession led to a decline in illegal immigrants across the nation.
Many also believe newer ICE programs play a role. For instance, the agency’s Secure Communities program shares information with the federal government on every suspect who is fingerprinted by a law-enforcement agency in Arizona, which could contribute to an overall increase in deportations from the state. These immigrants are caught by ICE before they are ever booked into county jail on state charges.
More than half of immigrants ICE has deported from Maricopa County through the Secure Communities program either did not commit any serious offenses or did not commit a criminal offense at all, according to the agency’s data.