Sheriff Joe, Immigration, and the Perils of Celebrity

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is ready for his close-up. And recently, he came close to blowing his cover.

Everyone has his drug. And for "America’s Toughest (and Most Ridiculous) Sheriff," the intoxicant of choice is obviously the television camera. Arpaio needs to be in front of it and can’t live without it. When he’s not doing scores of interviews on television talk shows, he’s pitching his own COPS-style reality show where his deputies pull people out into the street in their underwear and then fit for a replacement pair of pink skivvies. Some law enforcement officers are content just to do their job and make it home safe after their shift.

Not Sheriff Joe. He wants to be a movie star.

The camera has helped him get this far by allowing him to communicate with the like-minded -- and the simpleminded. For instance, if you think all lawmen are interchangeable, that the concept of separate jurisdictions is overrated, and that local law enforcement officers should enforce immigration law -- whether they’re authorized to or not -- then this is the guy for you.

But it’s likely the camera will also be Sheriff Joe’s undoing. That became clear during Arpaio’s recent appearance on CNN Newsroom.

Here’s the set-up. Consumed by ego, accused of racial profiling and running roughshod over the federal government, Arpaio is poised to turn outlaw. After the Obama administration recently clipped his wings over alleged abuse of the federal 287(g) program, which allows more local law enforcement agencies to be trained to enforce immigration law as long as they stay within certain boundaries, Sheriff Joe vowed to press ahead anyway, using state laws against smuggling to continue to apprehend illegal immigrants. And, he said, if federal authorities wouldn’t take custody of his prisoners, he’d drive them to the U.S.-Mexico border himself.

Essentially, the Department of Homeland Security stripped Arpaio of the power to make immigration arrests. Now all he can do is check the immigration status of people booked into the county jail for allegedly violating state laws.

No doubt one thing that makes the federal government nervous about partnering with Arpaio is the colorful way the sheriff approaches immigration enforcement. This became apparent when he told a reporter working on a profile for a recent issue of GQ:

All these people that come over, they could come with disease. There’s no control, no health checks or anything. They check fruits and vegetables, how come they don’t check people? No one talks about that! They’re all dirty.

Or when he told a Phoenix women’s group:

My daughter has adopted children of various ethnicities. … I got a black, a Mexican with Down syndrome even. And yet I’m the racist, I’m the fascist, I’m the Hitler!

So when Arpaio went on the CNN Newsroom, host Rick Sanchez had plenty of material to work with. At one point, Sanchez asked Arpaio how he went about determining that someone is an illegal immigrant.