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.
More than 70 local law enforcement agencies in 26 states are part of 287(g), which has recorded about 118,500 deportations, according to Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE). Since 2007, 287(g) has allowed the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office to help identify and oust more than 26,000 people living in the United States illegally – the highest tally in the country. Second to Maricopa, Los Angeles County helped deport nearly 14,000 illegal immigrants.
Supporters of 287(g) say it is a flexible and mutually beneficial program for both the federal government and local authorities. “If you’re in Arizona, where you have a major problem with illegal immigration, then obviously you’re going to want to use that to every extent you can,” says Bryan Griffith, a spokesman with the conservative Center for Immigration Studies.
Using 287(g) as it was intended?
But civil rights groups say Arpaio and other law enforcement agencies have abused the program, using racial profiling to conduct 287(g) illegal-immigrant sweeps.
“The way it’s played out on the ground has been witnessed by the world in Maricopa County and so there’s clearly a dissonance between its stated intentions and its effect in communities,” says Chris Newman, legal counsel for the National Day Laborer Organizing Network.
The Government Accountability Office also has been critical of 287(g) and in March the Office of the Inspector General concluded local police operated outside limits and noted insufficient federal oversight and training. ICE officials have said they were trying to make improvements even before the finding were issued.
Last year, the Obama administration revoked an agreement under 287(g) that allowed the sheriff's office to train a task force in immigration laws used to identify and arrest suspected illegal immigrants while out on patrol. His office still participates in a different part of 287(g), which allows deputies to identify potential illegal immigrants who are booked in jail.
[Editor's note: The original version misstated what 287(g) agreement the federal government had revoked.]
Through all this, Arpaio has continued his crackdowns, saying state laws give him all the authority he needs.
Jack Chin, a law professor at the University of Arizona, agrees. And he says Arpaio's actions show the difficulty of bringing local law enforcement – sometimes with its own agenda – into a federal program. "287(g) is a federal program under federal supervision,” he says. “And the sheriff, like SB 1070, has a set of priorities that is different from those in the federal law.”
The Justice Department lawsuit does not deal with 287(g) explicitly, but is looking into the allegations that the sheriff's office uses racial profiling during its sweeps to find and detain illegal immigrants.