PHOENIX — Thousands of immigrant rights advocates marched in front of a county jail in Phoenix Saturday in a protest that was aimed at Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's immigration efforts and was marked by a clash between a small group of protesters and police officers.
Organizers say the protest was meant to show officials in Washington that Arpaio shouldn't handle immigration enforcement, and that Congress and the Obama administration need to come up with a way for immigrant workers to come to the country legally.
The three-mile walk that started in a west Phoenix park ended by afternoon at the Durango Jail Complex, a collection of five jails, where officials played music, including a record by singer Linda Ronstadt, to drown out noise made by protesters. Ronstadt took part in Saturday's protest.
Protesters chanted "Joe must go" as they approached the jail complex. One person carried a sign that said "We are human" and bore a picture of a lawman with a wolf's face. A family of five wore T-shirts saying "Who would Jesus deport?"
For his part, Arpaio said he wasn't bothered by the protesters and that they should be directing their frustrations at Congress because it has the power to change America's immigration laws.
"They are zeroing in on the wrong guy," Arpaio said. "They ought to be zeroing in on the president."
The demonstration was peaceful until police say protesters near the end of the procession started throwing water bottles at officers. Phoenix Police Lt. Pat Hofmann said officers used pepper spray as they tried to separate protesters from an officer who was trying to take away the bottles.
Phoenix police spokesman Sgt. Andy Hill said on-scene supervisors described a group of demonstrators purposefully disrupting the demonstration by assaulting several police officers and a police horse.
He said one demonstrator struck a police sergeant on the head and chest with a flagpole. Two others threw water bottles, possibly containing rocks, at other officers, but missed.
Hill also said a police officer on horseback was assaulted while her horse was mobbed, punched and pushed. The officer used pepper spray to stop the assault.
"Most regrettably, a nearby 2-year-old child was hit by some of the pepper spray," said Hill, adding that the Phoenix Fire Department was called to the scene to treat the girl. "I am told she was released and was expected to be OK."
No one else was seriously injured, he said.
Phoenix police said Saturday night that five people were arrested during the protest and taken to Maricopa County Jail. Four were booked on suspicion of aggravated assault on police. The other faces disorderly conduct and resisting arrest.
Though the scene of the disturbance was cleared within minutes, the aftermath was chaotic. Protesters yelled obscenities at police officers in riot gear. One officer shook his pepper spray canister as he ordered people to keep moving. One protester wore goggles, and several others wrapped bandanas around their mouths.
Critics have accused deputies working in Arpaio's immigration efforts of racial profiling, which the sheriff denies. He says his deputies approach people when they have probable cause to believe they had committed crimes.
Ten months ago, Arpaio learned he was under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department for alleged discrimination and unconstitutional searches. He says the investigation was prompted by his immigration efforts, although federal authorities haven't provided details.
Since early 2008, Arpaio has run 13 immigration and crimes sweeps involving officers who flood a section of a city - in some cases heavily Latino areas - to seek out traffic violators and arrest other violators.
Arpaio's power to make federal immigration arrests was stripped away three months ago by officials in Washington, but he continues his immigration efforts through the enforcement of two state laws.
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A federal grand jury also is investigating Arpaio and his office on allegations of abusing his powers.