How activists fought Joe Arpaio’s immigration roundups

Latino-led opposition brought down the Maricopa County sheriff.

Over the course of a decade, from 2006 to 2016, a Latino-led movement in Arizona’s Maricopa County fought Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his local immigration crackdowns. American citizens of Latino descent, who felt targeted by Arpaio’s immigrant roundups, joined a movement to gather evidence against the sheriff in a landmark racial profiling lawsuit. Federal courts later found that the sheriff’s tactics were unconstitutional. The Latino-led resistance contributed to Arpaio’s electoral loss after 24 years in office. It also helped transform Arizona into a battleground state in the 2020 election.

This excerpt from the new book, Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Versus the Latino Resistance, by Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block (University of California Press), describes Arpaio’s “shock-and-awe” sweeps, during which deputies arrested undocumented immigrant drivers and passengers and provoked terror in the immigrant community.


On the Saturday before Easter in 2008, activist Lydia Guzman watched then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies handcuff a Mexican immigrant who’d been pulled over for driving with a cracked windshield. As the man was led away after being arrested on a warrant for an earlier traffic violation, his 13-year-old son stood on the pavement alone, clutching a bag containing brightly colored plastic Easter eggs.

The boy caught Guzman’s eye. She felt as if he were asking her, silently, “Are you going to help me get my dad back?” Guzman later learned from the boy’s mother that deputies had placed the boy in a patrol car, questioned him about his father’s immigration status, and had driven him home. His father was eventually turned over to ICE for deportation.

“That was the first time that I actually saw what it did, psychologically, to children and the traumatization that it did to kids,” she said. Guzman, age 40, had thrown herself into an effort to stop Arpaio, and she would recognize that same look again and again as she tried to help children ensnared in the sheriff’s uncompromising immigration enforcement.

Activist Lydia Guzman poses in front of a billboard that reads, “Have your papers ready – Racial profiling just ahead,” in Phoenix on August 9, 2010.
Courtesy Lydia Guzman

The boy’s father had been arrested in a shock-and-awe immigration-themed sweep that Arpaio had just launched. The day before, on Good Friday, the sheriff had dispatched an army of uniformed deputies and posse members, some dressed in the agency’s regulation black “raid shirts,” to stop cars for minor traffic violations, like cracked windshields, broken tail lights or failing to signal. If immigrant drivers or passengers had no valid identification, Arpaio’s deputies could arrest them on suspicion of being undocumented. Those without documents eventually wound up in ICE custody. The deputies had this power because the previous year, Arpaio had entered into a partnership with ICE known as a 287(g) agreement.

Arpaio called these enforcement actions “saturation patrols” or “crime suppression operations.” His critics called them “community raids.” 

Arpaio’s staff had erected a makeshift mobile command center in the parking lot of a run-down, partially vacant strip mall dotted with palm trees in Central Phoenix. Sheriff’s vehicles cluttered the asphalt — patrol SUVs, buses, vans and a portable trailer — most of them emblazoned with Arpaio’s name. After sunset, portable lights illuminated the command center like a stage. Deputies marched handcuffed men and women to the trailer for processing.

The sheriff had alerted the media a day in advance to ensure optimal coverage.

As TV cameras rolled, handcuffed men and women were loaded into vans advertising Arpaio’s illegal immigration hotline number and adorned with the words “Do Not Enter Illegally.” The vans transported immigrants to either the Fourth Avenue jail or straight to ICE headquarters. 

  • Activist Alfredo Gutierrez shouts into a bullhorn in 2008 to warn arrestees to stay silent and ask for a lawyer during one of Joe Arpaio’s sweeps.

    Film still from the documentary “Two Americans,” directed by Daniel DeVivo and Valeria Fernández
  • The mobile command center at one of Joe Arpaio’s sweeps.

    Film still from the documentary “Two Americans,” directed by Daniel DeVivo and Valeria Fernández
  • Community members outside of the mobile command center at one of Joe Arpaio’s sweeps.

    Film still from the documentary “Two Americans,” directed by Daniel DeVivo and Valeria Fernández

The sheriff greeted supporters who turned out for the spectacle — bikers in leather vests, T-shirted men with bandannas wrapped around their foreheads, people waving American flags.

Members of the Latino resistance would remember those two days in mid-March 2008 as the “Good Friday” raids, marking an uptick in the sheriff’s abuse of his federal immigration authority to gain political advantage and ingratiate himself with his followers. Immigrants and their American-citizen relatives paid the price, while activists scrambled to help them and witnessed their terror.

A couple months before the sweep, Guzman had been hired by a local businessman who opposed Arpaio’s tactics to help a team of attorneys gather evidence for a racial profiling lawsuit against Arpaio. This was known as the Melendres case. The suit alleged that Arpaio’s immigration enforcement tactics resulted in unconstitutional detentions and discrimination against Latino drivers and passengers in Maricopa County.

Now Guzman urged fellow immigrant rights advocates, in an email, to help document Arpaio’s racial profiling. “We have all you need, cameras, log sheets, water,” she wrote. “But we need bodies — this is a great way for you to invite a friend and be a part of protecting justice and civil rights.” 

Filming deputies required courage. Volunteers had to assert their First Amendment rights while risking arrest. Dennis Gilman, a white self-described “hell-raiser” who had recently come to activism by leaving water on desert trails for thirsty migrants, followed deputies tenaciously with a new video camera. He created an archive on YouTube.

A man in an ICE vest ushers arrested immigrant workers into a van during a Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office worksite raid at On Your Way Carwash in Peoria, Arizona on October 17, 2009.
José L. Muñoz

Meanwhile, at a protest against the neighborhood sweep, a group of veteran Latino activists — including attorney Danny Ortega and former state Sen. Alfredo Gutierrez, D, — took turns yelling into a bullhorn, hoping their shouts were within earshot of the handcuffed men and women marching into Arpaio’s command center: “¡No digan nada!” (“Don’t say anything!”), “¡Pidan hablar con un abogado!” (“Ask to speak to a lawyer!”).

If just one person could be spared deportation, Ortega thought, it would be worth it. He’d never imagined his legal training would take him “outside a raid trailer yelling at people to try to help them protect their right,” he said.

On Spanish-language television, Guzman warned immigrant viewers to stay away: “Está saturado” (“It’s saturated”), “Permanezca adentro” (“Stay inside”). Some saw Guzman on their screens and raced over to tell her their stories about being stopped or harassed by deputies. She scrawled their names and numbers on the backs of protest signs. She learned deputies interrogated drivers and passengers about their citizenship if they had no appropriate identification. Many American citizens of Latino descent were stopped for “some BS reason,” as she later called it, only to be questioned and released once they proved their citizenship.

Guzman figured Latino American citizens would make excellent plaintiffs in the Melendres racial profiling case. They were Americans, after all. And she believed they’d been wrongfully stopped and questioned by deputies hunting for unauthorized immigrants. To Guzman, their stories proved Arpaio was engaging in unconstitutional policing.

Gutierrez, the former lawmaker, didn’t like the way in which the sweeps were being covered by the mainstream English-language news outlets. “They were reporting a horse race,” he told us. “They were reporting a car wreck. They were reporting that Arpaio was there, that he was arresting people, that they were taken away, that he did this, he did that.”

“The real context is, it was Good Friday, God damn it. He was after Mexicans.”

At the end of the two-day sweep, sheriff’s records indicated deputies had arrested 43 people. All but one had a Hispanic surname. Thirty-nine were suspected undocumented immigrants. Guzman would call the weekend “Arpaio’s Easter Egg Hunt” in which “only the brown eggs were picked up.”

Joe Arpaio speaks to reporters at Tent City in Phoenix on February 4, 2009.
José L. Muñoz
GUZMAN’S OWN FAMILY was increasingly annoyed when she dashed off to help immigrants. Sometimes she found sticky notes from her daughter, Ashley, plastered on the table or mirror. “Mom, we need to go grocery shopping are you trying to starve me?” one read. And another said, “Mom, you don’t love me. You are never here.”

Just five days after the Good Friday sweep, Arpaio responded with another. It would take place on a Thursday, near a work center for day laborers. Guzman knew some volunteers had already called in sick to attend the Good Friday raid the week before. “This is just terrible,” she emailed other activists, “and we seem to be losing this battle with Arpaio.” They couldn’t keep going at this pace.

Nevertheless, she pulled out her Nokia flip phone and started texting. She’d created a text tree system to quickly mobilize the resistance and warn immigrants of the sheriff’s plans. Guzman could only text 10 coalition leaders at a time. They, in turn, texted their contacts, and the tree branched out.

This sweep was particularly tense. Pro-Arpaio and anti-Arpaio protesters were separated by orange-and-white traffic barriers and yellow police tape, and there was a strong possibility of violence. Bikers waved signs praising the sheriff and yelled, “Illegals go home!” By evening, several hundred pro-Arpaio and anti-Arpaio protesters had gathered near the sheriff’s command center. Arpaio’s detractors were mostly Latino, including local teens and neighborhood families. They chanted, booed, shook their fists and called Arpaio “KKK Approved.” Occasionally someone blew a shrill stadium horn.

 The next day, Phoenix’s Democratic mayor, Phil Gordon, condemned Arpaio’s actions. It was the first time a non-Latino elected official had publicly taken on the popular, powerful sheriff. “They locked up brown people with broken tail lights,” Gordon said, speaking to a sympathetic audience at an annual luncheon honoring César Chávez, the leader of the United Farm Workers of America who had mentored several Phoenix activists. “(Arpaio) calls this being tough,” the mayor said. “He calls it crime suppression. It is neither.” He criticized the sheriff for inciting potentially violent confrontations. Guzman, who attended the luncheon, jumped to her feet to applaud. 

“Come here, apologize to this little girl. Your thugs just took her mother away.”

After the luncheon, Guzman returned to the sweep, which was now in its second day. There, she saw another child victim — a 4-year-old girl with a dark ponytail sitting alone, cheeks flushed, in a hot car, watching deputies lead her handcuffed mother away.

The child’s mother, Maria Aracely Reyes, was a passenger in a car pulled over for a broken brake light. Deputies arrested Reyes after she was unable to prove she was in the country legally. Her husband picked up the child. Reyes, whose visa had expired, was deported to Nogales, Mexico, within a few days.

“You are the toughest sheriff in America? You are nothing!” yelled Antonio Bustamante, an attorney who was volunteering legal services outside the sweep. “How dare you victimize children! Come here, apologize to this little girl. Your thugs just took her mother away.”

 Bustamante remembered that Arpaio looked at him that day and said nothing. He knew he had to curb his own temper — some protesters were about to explode. One anti-Arpaio demonstrator showed up with a gun and only backed off after Latino leaders begged him to leave. Violence seemed imminent. At one point, a different man who was not clearly affiliated with either side showed up with a rifle strapped on his back. A monster pickup truck brandishing large American flags drove up to the Latino protesters. As people scattered, the pro-Arpaio side erupted into “USA! USA! USA!” cheers.

Alfredo Gutierrez and a younger activist, 24-year-old Carlos Garcia, stood in front and stretched their arms wide to prevent the truck, driven by a man in a white cowboy hat, from running over protesters. Garcia would recall that night as the closest he ever got to a physical fight. He would remember asking deputies to help keep the crowd under control. “Can you do something, are you going to do something?” he remembered asking a deputy. In his memory, the deputy laughed at him.

After Arpaio’s officers drove the jail vans full of arrestees away, and the protest was winding down, the bikers launched into a favorite deportation chant: “Nah nah nah nah, nah nah nah nah, hey, hey, hey, goodbye.”

Guzman drove home, shaking.

SIX DAYS LATER, Arpaio launched his next sweep in Guadalupe, a township tucked in the Phoenix metro area settled by Mexican immigrants and people whose descendants would later identify as members of the Pascua Yaqui Tribe. Arpaio announced to the press that Guadalupe town leaders concerned about illegal immigration had invited him to conduct this “crime suppression operation.” The town mayor denied this and asked Arpaio to leave. He didn’t. 

Immigrant inmates are paraded in front of news cameras as they march to Joe Arpaio’s Tent City Jail on February 4, 2009. Their uniforms incorrectly say they were unsentenced.
José L. Muñoz

In Guadalupe, parents kept 70 kids home on the day Arpaio launched the raid, and teachers volunteered to drive other students home. Businesses closed early in the town, which covered less than a square mile. At night, protesters gathered at the sheriff’s mobile command center. Drivers honked their horns in solidarity, only to be pulled over, questioned, and cited by deputies. American citizens complained that deputies demanded the citizens show identification simply because they walked on the sidewalk.

When Phoenix Mayor Gordon heard about the Guadalupe sweep, he asked United States Attorney General Michael Mukasey, a George W. Bush appointee, to investigate Joe Arpaio for civil rights abuses. He mentioned in the letter that a Latina aide in the mayor’s office had been stopped by sheriff’s deputies and asked to show her Social Security card.

A few weeks later, Mayor Gordon called Guzman. He’d heard she was collecting evidence for the Melendres lawsuit. Gordon asked Guzman to share her notes with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. He wanted her to document a pattern of civil rights abuses that could be investigated by the United States Department of Justice.

Community members who oppose Joe Arpaio protest outside of the federal courthouse in downtown Phoenix on Oct. 11, 2016, the day federal prosecutors announced they would pursue criminal contempt of court charges against Arpaio for violating federal court orders in an ongoing racial profiling lawsuit.
Jude Joffe-Block

“I’m on it,” Guzman replied. She transcribed the scribbled names, phone numbers and license plate numbers of potential Latino racial profiling victims that filled her notebooks. She emailed the most egregious cases to the special agent in charge at the Phoenix FBI office. She felt something had to happen, fast.

The Justice Department would move slowly, frustrating the activists who had put their faith in an expedient outcome. Meanwhile, those scribbled names from Guzman’s notes would add heft to the Melendres lawsuit, which would eventually find that Arpaio and his deputies had engaged in unconstitutional policing.

The federal judge in the Melendres case would later discover that Arpaio ignored court orders, which would lead a different judge to conclude Arpaio was guilty of criminal contempt of court, which carried a possible jail sentence. Only President Donald Trump’s first presidential pardon would spare the man once known as “America’s Toughest Sheriff” from a criminal sentence.

Jude Joffe-Block is a Phoenix-based journalist. She joined The Associated Press as a reporter and editor in 2020. Before that, she reported on immigration for more than a decade for outlets that include NPR, the Guardian, The World, and Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting. 

Terry Greene Sterling is editor-at-large for the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting and teaches at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. A three-time Arizona Journalist of the Year, her bylines have appeared in The Washington Post, Newsweek, The Atlantic, Slate, the Guardian, High Country News, Rolling Stone and many other publications.

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