Border Battle

City Council candidates debate the merits of SB 1070

As next week's city of Tucson election nears, the Tucson Police Department's enforcement of SB 1070 is once again in the headlines.

SB 1070, the controversial immigration law passed in 2010, had numerous provisions that were tossed by the U.S. Supreme Court last year.

But one provision that was left standing (although some justices suggested it might also be ripe for a challenge in the future) requires local cops to call the U.S. Border Patrol when they suspect someone is in the country illegally.

That particular provision triggered a major protest earlier this month when police pulled over two men near Southside Presbyterian Church. After the cops summoned Border Patrol agents, a crowd of protestors from the church attempted to stop Border Patrol agents from taking the duo into custody. In the ensuring scuffle, several of the protestors were pepper-sprayed before the men were taken away by the Border Patrol.

That clash has led the City Council to take another look at how the police are enforcing SB 1070. The council is scheduled to review the policies surrounding the law at a Nov. 13 study session.

At a recent forum co-sponsored by the Tucson Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the Tucson Weekly, the candidates for City Council sparred over the best way to enforce SB 1070.

Councilwoman Karin Uhlich said Tucson police must follow the law, but added that the city did have "some opportunities ... to work within the parameters of the law."

Uhlich, who is seeking a third term in north-central Ward 3, said the law undermines policing in Tucson in two ways: It makes victims of or witnesses to crime reluctant to call the police if they are in the country illegally and it ties up police officers who could be investigating more serious crimes instead of waiting for Border Patrol agents to respond to TPD's call.

But Republican candidate Ben Buehler-Garcia, who hopes to unseat Uhlich in next week's election, said the City Council shouldn't have a role in directing the police department's enforcement of SB 1070.

"This is another case where we get very involved and distracted about what is the proper role for the city of Tucson," Buehler-Garcia said. "Immigration is a federal issue. I'm not a fan of SB 1070, but as a City Council member, I will take the oath to support the laws and the constitution of the state of Arizona."

Ward 5 Councilman Richard Fimbres, a Democrat seeking a second term in the Nov. 5 election, said SB 1070 put Tucson's police officers "in a real bind" because they face potential lawsuits if they call the Border Patrol when they suspect someone is in the country illegally, but they also have to be careful to not racially profile suspects.

"We need to end this law that has been taken apart, piece by piece, by the Supreme Court," Fimbres said.

Republican Mike Polak, who is challenging Fimbres in the Nov. 5 election, said the city "has to obey the law. ... If training our police officers is what's necessary to work better with those laws, then let's do that."

The candidates also split over the City Council's 2010 decision to sue the state over the constitutionality of the provision in SB 1070 that requires police officers to detain anyone they suspect is in the country illegally and contact U.S. Border Patrol agents in order to check their immigration status.

Uhlich said that the council made the right decision when it voted to sue the state, even if it was unpopular at the time, because it set the groundwork for Tucson leaders to appeal to trading partners in Mexico.

"Had we not immediately taken a strong position against SB 1070 ... the gateway to the Sun Corridor would have slammed shut," Uhlich said. "Did this mayor and Council get that, when it was unpopular in many respects? Do you think we got a lot of love and cuddles for suing over SB 1070? No, we got a lot of threatening calls, but it was the right thing to do, and economically, it probably has positioned us better than any other community in the state."

While Buehler-Garcia has pushed increasing trade with Mexico as part of his economic-development program, he said that he would not supported the lawsuit.

"If we want to change the law, let's change it at the state level," Buehler-Garcia said. "I don't think we get that done by filing lawsuits."

Fimbres supported the Council's decision to file the lawsuit because it helped the city build better trade relationships with Mexico.

"We felt that it would increase racial profiling," Fimbres said. "Sixty-four miles down the street is Mexico and we rely heavily on tourism."

Fimbres called it an "economic issue."

"The Canamex Corridor runs from the port of Guaymas all the way to Alberta, Canada," Fimbres said. "There are a lot of opportunities for us to trade and do business here."

Fimbres credited Bob Walkup, who was serving as mayor when the law was passed, for traveling to Mexico to let officials and business leaders know that Tucson did not support SB 1070 and similar crackdowns.

Polak said that the city should not have filed the lawsuit.

"I don't think we should have sued the state," Polak said. "I think we should work with them and resolve the issues."

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