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Know the West

What Joe Arpaio represents in today’s American West

The embattled lawman faces charges of criminal contempt.


Editor’s note: In July, Joe Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt. On Friday, Aug. 25, President Donald Trump signed a pardon for Arpaio, saying the former sheriff “was convicted for doing his job.”

The former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, Joe Arpaio, known nationally for anti-immigrant rhetoric and his “Tent City Jail” that forces inmates to live in tents in blistering heat, is going on trial this week. After being voted out of office last fall after six terms, Arpaio is now being hauled into federal court in Phoenix for conducting traffic patrols that targeted immigrants. In 2007, the American Civil Liberties Union and others sued him for racial profiling; in 2011, a judge ordered Arpaio to cease detaining people specifically under the suspicion they were in the country illegally. But the Department of Justice says he continued with his tactics, in spite of that order.

Inmates at the Maricopa County Tent City jail walk to new housing to open up new beds for maximum security inmates while Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio oversees, on April 17, 2009 in Phoenix, Arizona.
Joshua Lott/Getty Images

If convicted, the 85-year-old former lawman faces up to six months in jail. It’s unclear whether such a conviction could tarnish his celebrity status among some conservatives and anti-immigration advocates. The son of an Italian immigrant and raised in Massachusetts, Arpaio has become a fixture in Arizona culture wars and a symbol of several hot-button issues in today’s American West.

“Tough on crime” policies targeting immigrants may be what Arpaio is most well known for. As sheriff, he raided businesses in the metro Phoenix area, arresting people who did not have proper documentation. The lawsuit against Arpaio has become even more relevant in the era of President Donald Trump, a staunch critic of illegal immigration. Throughout the presidential campaigns last year, the former sheriff stumped for Trump and supported the candidate’s push to crack down on undocumented immigrants and finish the U.S.-Mexico border wall. Now, as Trump’s anti-immigration stance has moved from mere campaign rhetoric to action with travel bans and budget proposals to fund the wall, Arpaio’s extremism is no longer an aberration, but an echo of the highest federal office.

Arpaio may be the West’s most famous rogue sheriff — an emblem of the Sagebrush Rebellion. For years, Arpaio has resisted federal authorities he didn’t agree with and refused to enforce policies he personally viewed as unconstitutional. For example, he has suggested he would not to enforce certain federal gun laws. And in 2012, he received a lifetime achievement award from the Constitutional Sheriffs and Peace Officers Association, an organization that pushes the idea that sheriffs are the supreme law of the land, above federal officers. (CSPOA has been a rallying tool in recent years to purge federal control of natural resources in the West. The constitutional sheriffs group supported a bill from Rep. Jason Chaffetz, R-Utah, to defund law enforcement within the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management.) While the former Arizona sheriff wasn’t known to show up to ranching and mining disputes, he has been part of the constitutional sheriff movement, an archetype of the anti-federal lawman.


Earlier this month, Arpaio spoke at a pro-gun rights event in Massachusetts alongside other figures from recent Sagebrush Rebellion incidents: Stewart Rhodes, founder of the self-styled militia group Oath Keepers, and Jeanette Finicum, widow of the Arizona rancher killed in a confrontation with Oregon state police during the 41-day armed occupation of the Malheur National Wildlife Refuge last year.

The former sheriff’s trial is expected to conclude by the end of next week. Some experts speculate that Arpaio’s age will preclude him from being put in jail. Phoenix legal expert Roy Herrera said in a media interview this week that if Arpaio is convicted, it’s possible Trump would pardon him — “Which wouldn’t surprise me at all,” he said.

 Tay Wiles is an associate editor for High Country News and writes from Oakland, California. She can be reached at [email protected]org.