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Joe Arpaio: Why is Obama administration suing an outspoken Arizona sheriff?

The Justice Department said Thursday that Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Arizona's Maricopa County is not cooperating in an investigation into whether his department has used racial profiling in sweeps to catch illegal immigrants.

By Lourdes MedranoStaff writer / September 2, 2010

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks at a United Border Coalition Tea Party Rally on Aug. 15.

Matt York/AP/file

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Tucson, Ariz.

The United States Justice Department is filing an "unprecedented" lawsuit against Joe Arpaio, the controversial sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County.

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In announcing the legal action Thursday, a Justice Department official said that Sheriff Arpaio is refusing to cooperate with a federal investigation into allegations of discrimination and illegal searches and seizures by the department.

The Justice Department said it has been seeking documents relating to its civil-rights probe for 15 months and turned to a lawsuit only as a last resort, adding that this was the first time in 30 years that a police department had not cooperated with a civil-rights investigation.

"The actions of the sheriff's office are unprecedented," said Thomas Perez, assistant attorney general for the civil-rights division, in a statement.

Arpaio told the Arizona Republic that he thought the lawsuit was "camouflage" for a federal attempt to curtail his anti-illegal immigration sweeps in mostly Latino communities. He also said he had begun cooperating with federal authorities and thought they were making headway toward a solution.

Arpaio and the Obama administration have repeatedly clashed over immigration policy.

A longtime lawman with a penchant for theatrics, Arpaio has been a central figure in the federal government’s practice of enlisting local and state police to enforce certain aspects of immigration law – a program called 287(g).

The program is seen as one of the inspirations for SB 1070, the controversial Arizona immigration law that was signed into law this year but which is now tied up in a court battle. As such, both 287(g) and Arpaio – its most zealous practitioner – have become lightning rods.

A $1 million bounty?

Arpaio’s crackdowns on illegal immigrants are well known on both sides of the US-Mexico border, to the point that his office says he has been sent a death threat by a Mexican drug cartel recently, although the origin of the $1 million bounty on the sheriff’s head is unconfirmed.

It isn’t the first time Arpaio is threatened. “He’s a controversial figure, he’s an outspoken person,” says sheriff's spokeswoman Lisa Allen.

Some blame 287(g) for giving Arpaio and other local law enforcement agencies across the country the authority to go after illegal immigrants. The program, part of the Immigration and Nationality Act created in 1996, emerged from obscurity after the 9/11 attacks and later morphed into federal-local immigration enforcement whose goals prioritized the arrest and deportation of illegal immigrants charged with crimes.

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