Sheriff Joe Arpaio tries legal Hail Mary against Obama immigration plan

President Obama's critic-in-chief over illegal immigration, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix, is determined to stop the plan to defer deportation for millions of immigrants. But his influence is waning.

Ross D. Franklin/AP/File
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio pauses as he answers a question at a news conference at Maricopa County Sheriff's Office Headquarters in Phoenix in this 2013 file photo.

For years, Sheriff Joe Arpaio has made himself an icon far beyond the sprawling landscape of Arizona's Maricopa County through his crusade against illegal immigration.

But the hallmarks of his power are diminishing, as a federal court case and the policies of Obama administration both to shield millions of undocumented immigrants and to target Sheriff Arpaio's operations directly take their toll.

Last week, Arpaio was forced to dismantle a unit that focused on arresting immigrants who rely on counterfeit IDs to work. The move was necessary to comply with a federal judge's decision in a 2013 class-action civil rights case, in which Arpaio's immigration enforcement was found to violate the rights of many Latinos. Among other measures, the court appointed a monitor to oversee day-to-day operations at the sheriff's department.

But true to Arpaio's feisty spirit, he keeps throwing punches even as he retreats. On Monday, a federal judge in Washington is scheduled to take up a lawsuit Arpaio has filed against President Obama's executive action to defer deportation for about 5 million of the estimated 11.4 million living in the country illegally.

Mr. Obama's plan, which will be rolled out early next year, grants work permits to parents of children who are legal residents or were born in the United States, and extends some protections for those who came into the country before they were 16. The president also has emphasized that deportations will focus on criminals, not families.

The action, Arpaio says, will harm his ability to do his job.

"Obama’s new amnesty program will greatly increase the burden and disruption of the sheriff’s duties," states Arpaio's suit, which argues that the president's move is unconstitutional because it bypasses Congress.

Arpaio has no legal standing to bring such a lawsuit, says Paul Bender, a constitutional law professor at Arizona State University in Tempe. The courts have made it clear that the job of enforcing immigration law rests with the federal government, not local jurisdictions, he adds.

"Arpaio is not entitled to decide who should be deported," says Professor Bender. "It's not up to him."

But Arpaio is struggling to stay relevant, says Randy Parraz, co-founder of Citizens for a Better Arizona and a longtime critic of Arpaio.

The fallout from the class-action lawsuit has taken its toll. 

"He's really under the gun when it comes to the federal oversight," says Mr. Parraz. "He has been more and more reined in, and boxed in, by the strength of that monitor and the federal judge."

Moreover, Arpaio is having to fend off Washington, too. While previous administrations sanctioned his ability to pursue and detain undocumented people, the Obama administration has stripped him of his powers, accused him of discriminatory practices, and filed a lawsuit against him that's making its way through the courts.

Arpaio supporters like Buffalo Rick Galeener blame the federal government, particularly the Obama administration, for making it increasingly difficult for Arpaio to carry out his law enforcement duties. He can understand the sheriff's frustration at seeing many of the suspects he arrests and turns over to immigration authorities go free instead of being deported, the Phoenix retiree adds.

Over the course of an eight-month period, Arpaio's department referred more than 4,000 arrestees to Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) and "over 36 percent keep coming back," the lawsuit claims.

If implemented, Obama's executive action will make Arpaio's job more difficult, says Mr. Galeener.

"It's going to be a lot tougher because all he can do is concentrate on criminal activity," he says of the sheriff. "Well, regardless, if he picks up a criminal and they happen to be an illegal alien, guess what? They're going to get special treatment."

"It's a joke," he adds. "And that's not the fault of Sheriff Joe. If Sheriff Joe had his way, he'd put them all in jail."

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