The Associated Press

Published: February 11, 2009

MEXICO CITY: Mexico on Tuesday criticized an Arizona sheriff’s decision to keep illegal immigrants separate from other inmates at tents in Phoenix that house prisoners.

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio accompanied the immigrant inmates — along with members of the media — to Tent City from an area jail on Feb. 4. He suggested illegal immigrants were better at escaping than other criminals and that housing them separately would save money.

The Mexican Foreign Relations Department said 230 Mexican nationals were being held at Tent City.

The Mexican consul general in Phoenix has “energetically protested the undignified way in which the Mexicans were transferred to ‘Tent City,’” the department said in a statement. The department said the and transfer of prisoners should “conform to internationally recognized norms” but did not give more details about why it thought the prisoners had been mistreated.

Arpaio said Mexican officials have not expressed any discontent personally to him and that he was surprised by Tuesday’s statement. He said he was told that the Mexican officials who visited the prisoners at Tent City expressed satisfaction over conditions.

“Everything was good, so I don’t know what this is about,” Arpaio told The Associated Press in a telephone interview.

Arpaio said keeping illegal immigrants in one place is convenient for consulate officials visiting foreign inmates and for Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents charged with deporting the inmates after they have served sentences in county jails.

He also said that the separation involved not only illegal immigrants but also U.S. citizens who have orders to be transferred to the federal government after serving out their sentences. But he said the vast majority of those held in the separate area were illegal immigrants.

Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox has expressed concern that Arpaio could potentially be violating the immigrants’ rights by keeping them separated and would seek an opinion from the Justice Department and have staff there issue an opinion.

Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU of Arizona, has said it was degrading and unnecessary to shepherd the prisoners in front of media.

The Tent City is part of a tough atmosphere that made Arpaio nationally famous. His jails also feature chain gangs and pink underwear for male inmates.

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