Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio to disband unit that targeted immigrants workers in raids
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio addresses the media about a simulated school shooting in Fountain Hills, Arizona, February 9, 2013. REUTERS/Darryl Webb

Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio is disbanding a squad that targeted undocumented immigrants in workplace raid, his office said on Thursday, following a lawsuit by groups that accused the controversial lawman of infringing on the powers of the federal government.

The move is the latest in a series of setbacks for 82-year-old Arpaio, who bills himself as "America's toughest sheriff" and has come under fire for his efforts to crack down on illegal immigration in Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix.

Arpaio will disband the criminal employment unit, which went after immigrants who used fraudulently obtained identity documents to gain work, when an investigation ends early next year, his office said in a statement.

Since 2008, the unit has arrested and booked nearly 800 people for forgery and identity theft. During the latest raid in June, sheriff’s deputies arrested nine undocumented immigrant employees and a manager, a U.S. citizen, who worked at a commercial cleaning company in Phoenix.

Arizona has been at the forefront of states targeting illegal immigration, but it has suffered losses in court. On Wednesday, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled the state cannot refrain from issuing driver's licenses to young immigrants spared from deportation by President Barack Obama.

Attorneys for Arpaio and the state, in court papers filed on Wednesday in a federal lawsuit brought against him by immigrant right groups challenging the unit's work, did not give a clear reason for the plan to disband the criminal employment unit.

The court papers said Arpaio's sheriff's office no longer enforces state laws against using information belonging to someone else, such as a Social Security number, to obtain employment.

"This could not have been possible if not for the courage of undocumented workers who came forward to challenge the workplace raids," Carlos Garcia, director of Puente Arizona which sued to stop the workplace raids, said in a statement.

An internal Maricopa County Sheriff's Office memorandum filed in the case said the decision to disband the unit was made after certain Arizona laws were struck down in court.

Last month, a federal judge struck down a 2005 Arizona criminal statute against human smuggling in a ruling that found it infringed on the U.S. government's power to enforce immigration law. Arpaio had used the state law.

Separately, a federal judge has threatened to pursue possible contempt charges against Arpaio for failing to follow court mandates in a racial-profiling case.

(Reporting by David Schwartz in Phoenix and Alex Dobuzinskis in Los Angeles)