On the hunt for Arizona's illegal aliens with the Police Women of Maricopa County on TLC.

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April 30 2010 5:57 PM

Coyote Country

On the hunt for Arizona's illegal aliens with the Police Women of Maricopa County.

A front-page story in today's Washington Post notes that Arizona's new immigration-enforcement law puts police officers in a "tight spot." The new law allows police to detain anyone they believe to be an illegal immigrant and requires immigrants to have documentation on them at all times. It also lets citizens sue police agencies if they think they're not enforcing the law. Tucson Police Chief Roberto A. Villaseñor added that he "doubts there is a law officer 'anywhere in the state of Arizona' who can accurately describe how to enforce the measure."

The TLC show Police Women of Maricopa County premiered in February and airs its final episode on Wednesday, too soon for its comely stars to have to wrestle with the controversial law. But the series has provided a window onto how Arizona cops deal with illegals and how they might handle their new powers and prerogatives. More than one episode of the reality program—which follows two detectives and two deputies from the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office as they nab bad guys at work and tend to their children at home—depicts officers pulling over vans of suspected illegals and hauling them into the station.

Jessica Grose Jessica Grose

Jessica Grose is a frequent Slate contributor and the author of the novel Sad Desk Salad. Follow her on Twitter.

Maricopa County is the most populous county in Arizona. The Sheriff's office has jurisdiction over 9,000 square miles, including the cities of Phoenix, Tempe, Scottsdale, and Mesa. The stars of Police Women of Maricopa County report to the flamboyant, fame-seeking Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who makes several cameos on the show and seems eager to live up to his reputation as "America's Toughest Sheriff." As Detective Lindsey Smith explains in the first episode of the series, "Sheriff Arpaio is tough on crime, that's no secret, he's known across the world for his stance on an array of topics, specifically illegal immigration." She says this in her flat Southwestern twang, and with no small measure of pride.

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An episode in which Smith has a run in with some illegals begins with Arpaio giving a press conference about an immigrant deterrence operation. Arpaio wants illegal immigrants to know that "If you come into Maricopa County you will be arrested. So I recommend you go somewhere else." Smith, an attractive blond and a single mother of two boys, subsequently travels to a "crows nest" overpass near Arizona's Bush Highway, which she calls a "hot spot for hiding out." Smith says she is looking "for vehicles that are speeding [or have] any kind of violation," so she can pull them over in order to identify coyotes—smugglers with vans full of illegals. "We rock Maricopa County, we don't put up with any bullshit, and we put people in jail," Smith boasts. She refers to coyotes variously as "scum" and "pains in my ass."

Smith spots a van that she deems suspicious but doesn't explain why she believes it is full of illegals. She doesn't say that the van is over the speed limit (she does note that it's going "highway speeds," but, then again, they're on a highway) or weaving or otherwise violating Arizona law. She does say, "I'm tired of waiting, I wanna get some action." Whatever Smith's reasons for believing the van is hinky, her hunch appears to be correct: The driver she pulls over is a Puerto Rican man en route to New Mexico with a vehicle full of Mexicans whose names he doesn't know. Only three of the people in the car have any identification at all.

As Smith puts the driver in pink hand cuffs (one of Arpaio's many attention-grabbing moves as sheriff—he also requires male inmates to wear pink socks and underwear), she says in a voice-over, "As long as [coyotes are] out here, I'll be out here waiting for them." The viewer doesn't know for sure what is happening to the alleged illegals. The last we see of them, they're being taken off to the side of the highway by other cops.

A second scene of an illegal immigrant arrest is similar to the first—it involves a highway stakeout—but there are some key differences. It occurs in an episode called "One-Stop Shopping for Crime," and the officer conducting the raid is Deputy Kelly Bocardo, who is Latina. She receives news that a blue minivan has been crossing over the center line—a clear traffic violation. The driver turns out to have no license, no insurance, and his vehicle is so overloaded with occupants that there is a man scrunched into its trunk. In this scenario, the van's driver gets the pink-handcuff treatment, and the passengers get white-plastic cuffs looped around their wrists. Of the passengers, Bocardo says, "We're going to start securing all these people, and we're going to take them downtown so we can interview them."

Bocardo is far more sympathetic to the illegals' plight than Detective Smith appeared to be. "It's a sad thing to see 11 people packed inside a minivan that's supposed to be holding 6 people comfortably," Bocardo says while driving away from the scene. "It definitely sucks to take them back to square one, but at the same time, if you're going to be here, you've got to be here legally. You can't be in Maricopa County illegally and get away with it."

Despite Bocardo's modicum of sympathy, the moral universe of Police Women is black-and-white: Police crackdowns are good; illegal immigrants are bad. This would seem to fit with TLC's evolving mission as a network. As a recent New York Magazine article points out, the network is positioning itself to appeal to a conservative, Middle-American audience. According to a new Gallup poll that says more Americans favor than oppose the new Arizona Immigration law, TLC's ideal audience probably supports the Police Women's staunch enforcement of immigration law.

Of course, the viewer can't tell for sure whether Detective Smith pulled her van over merely because the driver was Latino. But it sure looks that way on TV. Next season, Police Women will be shooting in Memphis, so we won't find out how the new immigration law affects Smith and Bocardo. One can only assume that they'll still be sitting on their perch above Bush Highway and waiting for suspicious vehicles to pass by. Now they'll just have an excuse to pull over more of them.

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