The president of a national religious organization and five others went on trial Friday in Phoenix a year after they were arrested while protesting Arizona's tough immigration law and a crackdown on undocumented immigrants.
The Rev. Peter Morales, president of the Boston-based Unitarian Universalist Association, is charged with a misdemeanor count of failure to obey an order. Morales lives in Arvada, Colo. and Salem, Mass., and was elected as the first Latino president of the association in 2009.
Also on trial in the same courtroom is Salvador Reza, the leader of an immigrant-rights group based in Phoenix and a longtime opponent of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his immigration crackdowns.
Other defendants include a UCLA graduate student in art, a security guard at a local music venue and an official at the Arizona branch of the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union.
The group is the last of the so-called human-chain trials.
On July 29, 2010, dozens of protesters took to Phoenix streets on the day SB1070 was set to take effect. A judge put the most contentious parts of the law on hold, and the fight likely is headed to the Supreme Court.
Arpaio organized an immigration sweep on the same day. He has conducted nearly 20 such sweeps, sending deputies and volunteer posse members to often heavily Latino areas of Phoenix to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.
Critics say the deputies pull people over for minor traffic infractions because of the color of their skin, so they can ask them for their proof of citizenship.
Arpaio has denied allegations of racial profiling, saying people are stopped if deputies have probable cause that a crime was committed, and only later do deputies find that many of the people arrested are illegal immigrants.
As the law took effect and Arpaio planned a sweep, people from across the country rallied in cities from Los Angeles to New York as hundreds of others swarmed downtown Phoenix.
The protesters in Phoenix massed outside one of Arpaio's jails, beating on a metal door and forcing sheriff's deputies to call for backup. Officers in riot gear opened the doors, waded out into the crowd and hauled off those who didn't move, including Morales.
"It was an act of religious witness against an outrageous violation of human and civil rights," Morales told The Associated Press before his trial began on Friday outside Maricopa County Justice Court. "It was a moral imperative to speak out."
He pointed out that the protest was "completely peaceful" and doesn't fear the consequences.
"I'm a very privileged person," Morales said. "I have a whole religious organization behind me. I'm not going to get deported or separated from my family. The worst I will face is some inconvenience."
Sean Larkin, a Phoenix attorney who has represented many of the protesters arrested for free because he is against SB1070, said that none of his clients has faced serious consequences because they were charged with misdemeanors. Many of them even had their cases thrown out entirely, he said.
Morales and the other defendants likely won't face more than a fine. The trial will last through Monday, when a judge is expected to issue a decision.
Whatever the legal result, Morales said he's glad he was able to speak out against Arpaio.
"The wrong person is on trial today," he said. "It's about time Joe Arpaio was arrested, indicted and prosecuted."
The U.S. Justice Department has been investigating Arpaio's office since March 2009 for allegations of discrimination, unconstitutional searches and seizures, and for having an English-only policy in his jails that discriminates against people with limited English skills.
Arpaio has said the investigation is focused on his immigration sweeps.
In a separate investigation, a grand jury in Phoenix is examining allegations that Arpaio's office abused its powers, including trying to intimidate county workers by having deputies show up at their homes at nights and weekends.
Arpaio told The Associated Press on Friday that his deputies do their job in a professional manner and that he stands by them.
"And we're going to keep doing it," he said. "We have a lot of people living in this county and I don't see any uproar about me and my officers enforcing the illegal immigration law, except a small group of people.
"I'm not going to back down," he added.
Although last year's protest delayed one of Arpaio's immigration sweeps by only a day, protesters viewed it as a small victory, said Reza, the immigrant-rights leader also on trial Friday.
"We decided to lose our liberty temporarily because the human-rights abuses in Arizona are so outrageous, something had to be done to stop it for one day and send a message," he said.