Operation Stonegarden Has No Place in Pima County. Still.

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Pima County as seen from Wasson Peak, Tucson Mountains. (photo by Ryan Kelly)

Tucsonans, and Pima County residents,

Thank you to many of you who either individually, or collectively with your community groups, joined the organized push to end Operation Stonegarden participation by the Pima County Sheriffs Department last September. That was an 8 month fight that led to meaningful change in our county. Sadly, this fight is not over. The opportunity for the County to approve Operation Stonegarden grant funding from the Department of Homeland Security is back up for conversation, and will be on the Board of Supervisors agenda, again, May 7th.

The collective amnesia that seems to have occurred amongst the decision-makers of our county on this issue is both disheartening, and disappointing. If it seems exhausting to show up over and over and over to get through to our elected officials that accepting this grant is morally reprehensible, it’s because it is. Operation Stonegarden, by its very nature, remains inhumane and unjust, while functioning as a field laboratory to stretch the meaning of “reasonable suspicion” and “probable cause”. The collaboration in Operation Stonegarden by the Pima County Sheriffs Department, with U.S. Customs and Border Protection, separates families too. Last September, Pima County residents finally convinced a majority of the Board of Supervisors that this collaboration, despite PCSD having participated in it for more than a decade, was morally reprehensible. Nothing about that fact has changed. None of what makes Operation Stonegarden bad policy has gone away since then. This is a joint program that is still, on its face, every bit as harmful, fear-mongering, profiling, and migrant-trolling, as it has always been.

Somehow the conversation about just how bad Operation Stonegarden is, has been muddied with the new addition of unnecessary elements of nuance. In the past several days it has been reported that the grant monies received through this program could be allocated to offset the costs incurred for public health assistance of migrant families, to the tune of $150,000, and could be directed to local nonprofits providing related social services (another $180,000). While the stories of migrants being unceremoniously dumped at local shelters and places of worship by ICE pulls at all of our heartstrings, we mustn’t forget the cycle of failed, and deliberately punishing federal economic and immigration policies that are at this crisis’s root. The border militarization (of which Operation Stonegarden is an integral part) that residents of our county are all too familiar with, is directly contributing to this humanitarian calamity. It is critical to understand that under the agreed upon terms of the Operation Stonegarden grant between DHS and the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, the overwhelming amount of the funds potentially received (around $1,000,000) would go towards overtime pay for deputies explicitly on Operation Stonegarden missions and duties under coordination with Customs and Border Protection personnel. Again, this is inherently bad policy. County residents have made that clear. Nothing has changed.

Issues of transparency or the purported lack thereof, coming from the Pima County Sheriff’s Department, do not change the fact that Operation Stonegarden is bad, unjust policy.

Additionally, new concerns brought to light over the purchase of license plate readers, and the sharing of data obtained through these devices with federal agencies, while concerning, does not change the fact that Operation Stonegarden is bad, unjust policy.

While it’s been said that the Board of Supervisors, through the powers vested in them by our state constitution, can deny proposed purchases of specific equipment, this does not change the nature of the mission of Operation Stonegarden itself. Many activists have pushed the Board to explore the legal reaches of their oversight into the operational policies of the Pima County Sheriffs Department over the course of the last 15 months, but to no avail. Continuously it was determined that because the County Sheriff is an elected office itself, that it falls solely under that office’s authority to determine the course and direction of its own department. Furthermore, the very nature of applying for grant funds under Operation Stonegarden dictate agreed upon activities between local law enforcement and the Department of Homeland Security. Neither our Supervisors, nor our County Administrator seem determined to push back on that, and it’s arguable at best if they even could. Again, Operation Stonegarden is bad, unjust policy.

Another topic that has entered the conversation around Operation Stonegarden by some of those advocating against its reinstatement involve concerns that Sheriffs deputies are understaffed and over-burdened. This claim, in my estimation, does not belong in this conversation, and in fact drives us further away from the conversation being centered around the communities most effected by militarized policing working collaboratively with federal immigration agencies. Operation Stonegarden is bad, unjust policy.

It has been reported from Sheriff Napier himself, that Pinal County Sheriffs have conducted Operation Stonegarden missions within northern areas of Pima County. He’s pointed correctly to the fact that they are a 287(g) agency, with sheriffs’ deputies cross-deputized as federal immigration agents. He points proudly at the fact that Pima County Sheriff’s Department is not a 287(g) department. Both he and the County Administrator seem to use this recent revelation as justification for Pima County to once again accept Operation Stonegarden funds. In an odd twist of logic, they seem to be making the case that because Pima County doesn’t go to some of the extremes of other law enforcement entities, that we should somehow feel obligated to accept the grant funds in order to settle into the position of being a more responsible caretaker of these resources. Again, Operation Stonegarden is bad, unjust policy. This doesn’t change that.

It may not be very fun or exciting for us to continue to bluntly cudgel our elected representation with the fact that collaborative law enforcement operations between our local sheriffs and federal immigration agents are oppressive and harmful to some of the most vulnerable in our community in a multitude of ways, but it remains at the center of what is unmistakably wrong about Operation Stonegarden. Nuances of County Code and State Statutes do not change that reality.

We have to demand that Operation Stonegarden remains permanently finished as a mission and funding source for the Pima County Sheriffs Department. The fact that it remains in place for the Tucson Police Department, should be an issue raised loudly with the Tucson City Council. That Operation Stonegarden funds are still utilized by Marana Police, Oro Valley Police, and DPS, within Pima County, does not justify the Pima County Board of Supervisors accepting it on behalf of the Pima County Sheriffs Department. Any perceived political expediency on the part of members of the Board of Supervisors, in considering acceptance of Operation Stonegarden funds, now that we’re nearing an election year, would both be a gross misinterpretation of the truth, and an unveiling of the limits of their moral principles in governing.

In a fight that’s lasted from February of 2018, to this moment…in which we’ve already determined that Operation Stonegarden is bad for the people of Pima County, in which a majority of our Supervisors have already expressed as much on-record themselves, in which we’ve already become the largest border county in the United States to reject these funds, in which the elected Sheriff has continued his attempt to actively undermine and circumnavigate the Board’s constitutional authority, in which county resolutions have been proposed to hand oversight of a county committee overseeing sheriffs grant recommendations over to the elected Sheriff himself, in which the elected Sheriff has worked with state legislators sympathetic to his desire to obtain Operation Stonegarden funds in an attempt to push state law stripping county Boards of Supervisors of their unique authorities across the state, in which we’ve seen an escalation of the most heinous modern immigration policies in our nation’s history, in which an individual such as Stephen Miller has growing unprecedented influence over said immigration policies…

We still have to say NO. This cannot be reconciled. This cannot be justified.

NO to Operation Stonegarden.