By Tim Gaynor
PHOENIX (Reuters) - Workers digging the foundations for a new office of an Arizona sheriff accused of discriminating against Latinos have unearthed the graves of early city founders, some of whom could have been immigrants from Mexico, officials said.
Construction workers for Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio's new office came across lines or depressions in the dirt last week that officials believed were a "minicemetery."
"When we found the lines of depressions in the ground ... we stopped work on that area and we called in archaeological and anthropological experts to help us excavate the areas," Maricopa County spokeswoman Cari Gerchick said.
"We have removed all of the caskets, and we are working to see if we can find any descendants of the people who were buried," she said, adding that workers were trying to ensure the remains were treated with "dignity and respect and extreme care."
Arpaio, who styles himself "America's toughest sheriff," is known for his controversial sweeps cracking down on illegal immigrants across the metro Phoenix area.
Last week, the U.S. Justice Department sued Arpaio, saying he and his office intentionally engaged in racial profiling and unlawful arrest of Latinos in violation of their constitutional rights - a charge Arpaio said he will fight.
Flagging what he described as an irony, an expert with a local historical association said up to half the graves found at the site could have been of Mexican settlers.
"In 1885, about 50 percent of the population of Phoenix was Mexican-American, and there's a good chance that those bodies ... were people from Mexico," said Frank Barrios, vice president of the Pioneers' Cemetery Association.
"In the 1870s and 1880s, there were no papers and people just moved back and forth looking for work. There is some controversy in the Mexican community here in Phoenix that ironically Joe Arpaio is building a new facility on the graves of undocumented Mexicans," he added.
Barrios said the remains were unlikely to be identified. They likely belonged to settlers who came to the area between 1868, when Phoenix was founded, and 1885 when the Pioneer and Military Memorial Park officially opened.
He said the pioneers' remains were meant to be moved from the city's first cemetery near Fifth Avenue and Jackson Street to the Pioneer and Military Memorial Park by the mid-1880s, although not all were.
The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office referred all comment on the issue to Maricopa County.
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Lisa Shumaker)