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Supporters rally for Arizona's defiant Sheriff Joe Arpaio

To some, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is a cop run amok. Others say he's a scapegoat, unfairly vilified for upholding Arizona's controversial tough law aimed at illegal immigrants.

By Lourdes MedranoCorrespondent / April 29, 2012

Supporters of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio hold a rally at a park in Fountain Hills, Arizona Saturday. Arpaio, who styles himself as "America's toughest sheriff," is known for controversial sweeps cracking down on illegal immigrants in the Mexico border state.

Eric Thayer/Reuters

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Fountain Hills, Arizona

To some, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is the worst law enforcement has to offer, a cop run amok. Others say he's a scapegoat, unfairly vilified for upholding the law.

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“All he does is enforce the law that's already on the books,” says Walt Lyons, one of dozens of mostly retirees who attended a Saturday rally and chanted “go Joe, go Joe,” to show they stand behind their sheriff.

As many as 200 people, some holding signs touting the longtime lawman, took part in the event northeast of Phoenix in Fountain Hills, where Mr. Arpaio lives and enjoys strong support even as he faces a federal investigation involving accusations of racial profiling during immigration sweeps. Arpaio maintains he's done nothing wrong and is merely doing the job the federal government neglects.

“He's kind of a sacrificial lamb,” adds Mr. Lyons's wife, Regina. “It's part of the process and he's willing to put up with it.”

Do you know the facts behind Arizona's immigration law? Take our quiz.

The rally came just three days after the Supreme Court took up Arizona's tough immigration law known as Senate Bill 1070. Although it wasn't the first law passed to encourage the departure of illegal immigrants from the state, the far-reaching 2010 measure decisively split Arizonans into warring political factions. On one hand, Arpaio, a staunch advocate of SB 1070, gets high praise from his neighbors and on the other, the state senator who conceived the immigration law gets ousted from office.

“It's a very divisive issue,” says Bruce Merrill, a political scientist and pollster at Arizona State University in Tempe. “It's really hurt Arizona.”

A federal judge in July 2010 prevented the most controversial provisions from taking effect, including one that requires police to check the immigration status of those suspected of being in the country illegally. The United States Supreme Court is expected to issue its ruling in June.

But the illegal immigration debate is much more complicated than people just taking sides on SB 1070, Mr. Merrill says.

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