Sheriff Joe Arpaio: I don't take orders from anybody.

Refusal by ‘America’s toughest sheriff’ to stop immigration sweeps fits into the career of a controversial populist.

Joshua Lott/REUTERS
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks to reporters about his newest crime-suppression operation during a news conference in Surprise, Arizona yesterday.

Much like the late Jefferson Parish, La., Sheriff Harry Lee did, Maricopa, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio walks the line between all-powerful baron and populist champion of law and order.

On Friday, Immigration and Customs Enforcement told Mr. Arpaio to stop using the authority of the federal 287g program -- which deputizes local law enforcement to help federal agents target illegal immigrants -- as part of street sweeps in Phoenix that have primarily led to arrests of people who haven't committed any serious crimes. Arpaio refused as he headed a 12th major anti-immigration operation through the metro Phoenix county today.

"The Maricopa County Sheriff's Office is the only law-enforcement agency in the country to lose its authority to enforce federal immigration laws on the street under a revamped and controversial program that lets local and state agencies act as immigration officers," the Arizona Republic reported.

""You know what? They can take away anything they want. I'm still the elected sheriff,” Sheriff Arpaio told Fox NewsGlenn Beck this week. “I'm still going to enforce the state laws and I'm going to enforce the federal laws."

Arpaio, a former DEA agent, was first elected in 1993 and has since won five four-year terms as a Republican, all by double-digit margins. The inmate population has doubled in that time to 10,000. Arpaio once earned the Washington, D.C., Police Department’s “most assaulted officer” title because of his willingness to get into scuffles, according to Time. Working in Las Vegas, he once pulled over a motorcycle ridden by Elvis Presley.

With the county jail full, Arpaio began housing inmates in tent cities, pointing out that most jails these days are “like hotels.” Believing that pink is a calming color, he has marched inmates through the streets in pink underwear. He also instituted the nation’s first female and juvenile chain gangs.

Sheriffs -- who are essentially colonial-era holdovers -- cut a cultural and political profile that critics say challenges the democratic system. In recent years, jurisdictions across the South have attempted to rein in the power of the sheriff -- with mixed results.

"In many areas, sheriffs are the most powerful political force that people have to deal with," according to Stephen Bright, the director of the Southern Center for Human Rights, in Atlanta. "You have people who become local J. Edgar Hoover types, who have a little bit on everybody."

Federal courts have fought back against Arpaio, finding him guilty in 2008 of constitutional violations after cutting inmate meals back to two a day (at a cost of 15 cents each) and sometimes serving moldy bread and fruits.

Arpaio says he gets his power from state and federal authority, not ICE regulations. Now it looks like it may take another federal judge to determine not only whether Arpaio can legally continue the sweeps, but whether they, as critics charge, amount to racial profiling -- a charge that ICE has tried to avoid.


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