What Joe Arapaio’s legacy means

The Arizona sheriff’s shocking legacy should force change in the immigration debate.


The brutalization of powerless people who look and speak differently.

Unlawful detainment and arrests.

Opponents of such tactics threatened, arrested, even jailed for no reason, "or forced to defend against specious civil complaints or other baseless charges."

A number of "troubling" incidents of use of excessive force.

Clear abuses of the constitution.

These sound like the sort of horrifying developments that might occur in some distant police state, don't they?  Well, they're not.

You're looking at a few of the findings of an ongoing U.S. Department of Justice investigation of Arizona's Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) -- headed by none other than the (in)famous Joe Arpaio.

If you're unfamiliar with him, Arpaio is an unflappingly rabid opponent of illegal immigration. He's made it his county's business to step in and enforce federal law against suspected illegal immigrants, conducting pretty regular raids (once, apparently, with the help of action star Steven Seagal). He's declared himself "America's toughest sheriff," has had thousands of complaints and lawsuits filed against his department for alleged abuses, and is known for housing immigration detainees in tent cities and forcing jail inmates to wear pink undies.

But the DOJ investigation confirms what many have long suspected: there is something much darker going on here than hardline political messaging. According to the statement issued Dec. 17 by Assistant US Attorney General Thomas Perez, the agency

found that MCSO engages in a pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing ... MCSO engages in racial profiling of Latinos, and unlawfully stops, detains and arrests Latinos. ... We found that MCSO unlawfully retaliates against people who criticize its policies and practices. ...  We found that MCSO routinely punishes Latino inmates that are limited English proficient when they fail to understand commands given in English, and denies critical services that are provided to other inmates.  These actions violate Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Consider also that a DOJ-enlisted expert statistician found that in Maricopa County, Latino drivers were 4 to 9 times more likely to be stopped than non-Latino drivers. It was, the number-cruncher reportedly told DOJ, "the most egregious racial profiling in the United States that he had ever personally observed in the course of his work, observed in litigation, or reviewed in professional literature."

America: Land of the free. Unless you're brown, apparently.

From the Los Angeles Times:

On Arpaio's watch, deputies went unchecked. One officer used his patrol car to intentionally hit and drag a Latino man and then instructed other deputies to "leave him there," investigators said. A Latino motorist was incarcerated for 13 days for failing to use his turn signal.

If you happen to be among those ready to dismiss the DOJ investigation as some kind of Obama administration conspiracy (even though it was initiated under George W. Bush),  then turn instead to the findings of a recent report by the Associated Press, which alleges that Arpaio's department mishandled or failed to follow up on more than 400 cases of sexual assault during a three year period ending in 2007. Some of the victims were reportedly children of illegal immigrants. Some were toddlers.

These damning investigations are a shocking finale to what has been a fascinating and often disturbing year in immigration-related news and policy. There aren't many people on either side of the issue who would argue the U.S. immigration system is working well, or that the federal government has done much to improve it. Despite the lengthening southern border fence and significantly more border agents on the job, honest workers and criminals alike have streamed into the country over the past 15 years. Many of these newcomers play a vital role in the US economy and our communities; and many may burden already overtaxed social services, at the very least by adding significantly to the population they must serve.

In the absence of meaningful federal action, states have tried to fill in the gaps. In the first three months of 2011, state lawmakers floated a record 1,538 immigration-related bills, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures. Many were trying to follow the path blazed by Arizona, which in 2010 adopted a controversial immigration enforcement law -- SB 1070 -- that critics say essentially (and likely unconstitutionally) legitimized racial profiling as a means of ferreting out illegal immigrants. Alabama even enacted a law that, among other provisions, required schools to check the immigration status of their students.

The growing vitriol has brought to the fore stark divisions within the Republican Party. As I reported in June, for example, a number of Utah community leaders -- including prominent ultra-conservative Republican leaders and officials -- launched the Utah Compact, which essentially argues for a more humane approach to dealing with illegal immigration -- one that refuses to split up families and recognizes the role immigrants play in the economy. Last fall and this spring, the Compact helped foment the creation and passage of a bipartisan Utah guest worker program (which may also be unconstitutional). Then, conservative backlash against that law culminated this summer with delegates to the state's Republican Convention voting to support a repeal on the grounds that the measure offers a form of amnesty to immigration lawbreakers.

Then in November, Arizona Senate president Russell Pearce -- the lawmaker behind SB1070 -- was ousted in a recall campaign by another socially conservative Republican, Jerry Lewis. "Mr. Pearce was the man. He was SB1070. He was the president of the Senate, the architect of that bill and that was his claim to fame," Lewis told the Salt Lake Tribune. "That message was defeated tonight. I don’t think there is anything … Arizona could’ve done more significant than this." And some states that passed SB1070 copycat measures -- most notably Alabama -- are now  backpedaling on their laws' harshest provisions. How much farther states go in their fear-warped effort to fix the immigration system will depend ultimately on the U.S. Supreme Court, which this month announced it will hear challenges brought against the Arizona law by the federal government and others next summer.

And of course in the center of all of this, looking ahead, is next fall's presidential election, in which immigration issues are already getting a lot of play. Some politicians and leaders speculate that the anti-immigrant rhetoric delivered by many prominent members of the GOP has already alienated the fast-growing Latino electorate. It certainly seems to be another race to the bottom, with Republican candidates trying to outdo each other espousing hardline policies (regardless of what sort of progressive measures they may have supported in the past). It wasn't that long ago that Arpaio's endorsement seemed to be on every GOP candidate's wishlist.

I can only hope that what DOJ has brought to light about Arpaio's department forces all sides to pause and consider this: No matter how broken our immigration policies are, there is nothing patriotic about militant nativism that encourages the trampling of civil and human rights in the name of liberty and justice. In fact, it's institutional xenophobia, and it's downright un-American.

Sarah Gilman is associate editor of High Country News.

First image: Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona speaking at the Tea Party Patriots American Policy Summit in Phoenix, Arizona. Courtesy Flickr user Gage Skidmore.

Second image: Protester at an anti-Joe Arpaio march in Phoenix in 2009. Courtesy Flickr user Caleb Alvarado.

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