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.

Joshua Lott/Reuters
Inmates make phone calls from Maricopa County’s Tent City jail in Phoenix run by Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Matt York/AP
Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County enforces Arizona's illegal immigration law in the Phoenix area.

At a "tea party" rally near the US-Mexican border this summer to showcase Arizona's tough immigration law and its advocates, Sheriff Joe Arpaio was introduced as someone who "will not back down, no matter which way they write it, no matter which way they say it."

He got a rock star welcome.

Both revered and reviled for his dogged pursuit of illegal immigrants in the Phoenix area, the veteran lawman from Maricopa County has long been a lightning rod in the American immigration debate. But since the passage of SB 1070, the controversial Arizona immigration law that is now in legal limbo, Sheriff Arpaio and his efforts have been infused with a new resonance nationwide. He has emerged as a key figure in the debate over whether states have the right to enforce federal immigration laws.

To admirers, Arpaio is a Goliath in the fight against illegal immigration.

"I support Sheriff Joe 100 percent," says Lynn Kartchner, who lives along the border in southeastern Arizona and likes Arpaio's "no holds barred" approach to law enforcement. "He does the job the federal government won't do."

Critics view the sheriff as an unabashed self-promoter whose law enforcement tactics infringe on civil rights and foster a climate of hate. "I think he's a clown" who has discovered that attacking Latinos brings visibility, says Alfredo Gutierrez, an activist and former state senator.

A magnet for controversy

Arpaio, who has been Maricopa's sheriff since 1993, is unapologetic even as his tactics attract legal trouble. He has enforced some immigration laws with the blessing of the federal government but has come under fire for pushing the limits of his authority.

Activists accuse Arpaio of using racial profiling to conduct illegal-immigrant sweeps in mostly Latino neighborhoods. On Sept. 2, the United States Justice Department filed a lawsuit against him for what an official said was Arpaio's refusal to cooperate with a federal probe into allegations of discrimination and illegal searches and seizures by the sheriff's office. Arpaio also is the subject of a separate criminal investigation – also federal – into potential abuse of power.

Long before the April passage of Arizona's immigration law, the sheriff was grabbing headlines over the treatment of inmates he forced to wear pink underwear and live in tents in extreme desert heat.

SB 1070 seems to have enlarged Arpaio's prominent role in the illegal immigration debate, despite a federal judge's decision in July to put the popular law's most contentious portions on hold until the conclusions of legal challenges against it, including one from the Obama administration.

"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."

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."

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