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Joe Arpaio: Sheriff's star rises with 'tea party,' illegal immigration fight

Sheriff Joe Arpaio gains tea party support for sticking up for Arizona's tough law on illegal immigration. But he's in trouble with the feds for alleged noncooperation with their probe into his enforcement methods.

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"Obviously, he has received much more attention as a result of SB 1070," says Celestino Fernandez, a sociologist at the University of Arizona. "He's not about to back down; he's someone who seeks attention."

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Arpaio, who describes himself as America's toughest sheriff, became a darling of tea party members at events organized to promote the state law and counter widespread protests against it. He has used that platform to rail against the federal government and defend the Arizona law.

Defender of American jobs?

At the Aug. 15 border gathering, Arpaio told an effusive crowd that, unlike the federal government, his "little office" has managed to put a significant dent on illegal immigration: "In three years, over 40,000 we have arrested, investigated, and detained."

To the grass-roots Tea Party Patriots, at least, he is a defender of American jobs.

"We've debated among ourselves what role the immigration and the things that Sheriff Joe is doing, for instance, should have in the movement," says Rob Gaudet, national coordinator for the Tea Party Patriots. "In the end, we took the stand that being here illegally affects the marketplace and the availability of jobs."

Even in Louisiana, where Mr. Gaudet lives, Arpaio's name often comes up when talk turns to the border. By holding accountable those in the country illegally, "he could potentially be having an economic impact on the country through freeing up jobs for Americans that pay the taxes and are here legally," Gaudet says.

Mary Giovagnoli, director of the Immigration Policy Center, couldn't disagree more. She says Arpaio's immigration enforcement efforts have served mainly to create a "reign of terror among immigrant groups."

She sees the state law not as a vindication of Arpaio, but the result of frustration over a perceived rise in border-related violence.

Ms. Giovagnoli argues that Arpaio has made a name for himself by pushing his stance on illegal immigration – much like Joseph McCarthy raised his profile by popularizing his anti-Communist rhetoric in the 1950s.

The sheriff "is certainly a celebrity, self-made in many ways," she adds. "But he probably represents a certain spirit of defiance against the government and vigilantism that unfortunately is part and parcel of the American political experience."