America’s Toughest Sheriff?

Once upon a time, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio believed that local cops shouldn’t enforce Federal immigration law. That was a different Arizona, then. It depended on illegal immigrants, not despised them. In Phoenix, it was illegal immigrants who built the homes and laid the concrete that fueled the phenomenal growth of America’s fifth largest city.That was also a different Joe Arpaio. Back then, he argued that local law enforcement resources shouldn’t be siphoned off to do the job of Federal immigration agents. Now the state has declared open season on illegal immigrants and anyone else that a local or state police officer might suspect is an illegal immigrant, and Arpaio is hunting people with brown skin and Spanish accents.

Instead of complaining about doing the job of the Federal government, the sheriff seems to relish the extra work. No doubt because, as an elected official who has long toyed with the idea of running for governor as a Republican, he now understands the political mileage that one gets from appearing to be tough on illegal immigration.

Appearances can be deceiving and “tough” is a relative term. If Arpaio really were what he advertises himself to be---America’s toughest sheriff---he wouldn’t round up illegal immigrants who can’t vote. He’d go after their employers who do vote and also contribute money to elected officials like him. That would require a new degree of toughness, one that Arpaio doesn’t seem capable of. The sheriff targets a group that he thinks he can get away with mistreating. Imagine the dust storm at the Arizona Chamber of Commerce if Arpaio started arresting employers of illegal immigrants and padlocking their businesses.

What a lot of people don’t realize is that Arpaio and his deputies started enforcing immigration law even before the rest of the state got into the act. Arizona’s approach to the immigration issue became a national story in April 2010, when Gov. Jan Brewer signed SB 1070. But Arpaio started arresting illegal immigrants several months before that, under a state law that was designed to go after immigrants smugglers and their “co-conspirators,” i.e. the immigrants who were smuggled. Arpaio also took full advantage of the Federal immigration statute, 287g, which allows local and state law enforcement agencies to enforce immigration law as long as the local officers are trained and the Department of Homeland Security signs off on the agreement.

The Arizona immigration law---which was at the time the toughest of its kind in the country, a distinction that now goes to Alabama---requires local and state law enforcement officers to try to determine the legal status of anyone about whom they have a “reasonable suspicion” might be in the U.S. illegally (read: Latinos). This edict is a recipe for chaos in a state like Arizona where Latinos are indigenous, where some Latino families can trace their roots back seven generations, and where Latinos were living and prospering when Arpaio’s ancestors were still back in Italy making pasta, wine and olive oil.

And sure enough, chaos has ensued. These days, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department routinely conducts vehicle checkpoints and raids businesses acting on nothing more than tips from concerned citizens outraged that there are, for instance, people (gasp!) speaking Spanish on the premises.

In 2011, the Justice Department issued a scathing report that accused Arpaio’s office of maintaining a “pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos” and “engaging in “unconstitutional policing.” It also charged that Arpaio abuses his authority by retaliating against critics.

About the same time, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow dealt Arpaio another blow in a case involving a civil rights lawsuit from 2007, which accused sheriff’s deputies of racially profiling Latinos in immigration sweeps masquerading as traffic stops. In addition to issuing legal sanctions against Arpaio for destroying documents, Snow also barred the sheriff and his deputies from detaining people simply for being in the country illegally. The judge who criticized deputies for circulating emails that “compared Mexicans to dogs” certified the lawsuit as a class action that would cover all Latinos who have been “stopped, detained, questioned or searched” by Arpaio’s officers.

None of this came as much of a surprise to Latinos in Arizona, who have yelled and screamed and protested for years that Arpaio was out of control. They were right. They deserved to be heard. Now they are being heard. But the problem in Arizona isn’t just Arpaio. It is also the people in both political parties who enable him. He doesn’t just answer to the voters. He is supposed to answer to the county board of supervisors; on that board, you’ll find one Latina Democrat who tries to hold Arpaio accountable and four white male Republicans who don’t seem to care.

As if all that wasn’t enough, Arpaio recently formed a “Cold Case Posse” to investigate claims that Obama was born outside of the U.S. Claiming that this was done at the request of his Tea Party constituents, he has met with “birther queen” Orly Taitz. “When I took this mission on, I took it on possibly to clear the president,” said Arpaio. “I was doing him a favor. We’ll see what happens.”

Meanwhile, one of Arpaio’s original defenders is Janet Napolitano, the former Arizona governor who cozied up next to the popular Arpaio in the 1990’s in the hopes of boosting her own electoral prospects. At one point, while serving as U.S. Attorney for Arizona, Napolitano dismissed a complaint against the sheriff by the Clinton Justice Department as merely a “lawyer’s paper.” That further empowered Arpaio.

And where is Napolitano now? She is serving as the Secretary of Homeland Security in an administration that is trying to slay the monster she helped create.

Good luck with that.


Ruben Navarrette