Sheriff Joe, Immigration, and the Perils of Celebrity

Arpaio: We're using the same criteria as the U.S. Border Patrol does everybody, arresting thousands of people who come into this country and that's under homeland security.

Sanchez: But the U.S. Border Patrol is on the border. You are nowhere near the border.

Arpaio: Well ...

Sanchez: You're literally going into people's neighborhoods and into schools. This weekend, you went into a carwash to essentially decide for yourself who was here illegally and not illegally. The feds are saying they don't want you doing that.

Arpaio might just have cooked his goose with that television appearance. He acknowledged that he’s relying on the same search and seizure standard as the U.S. Border Patrol when stopping individuals on the street and trying to ascertain their legal status. The problem is that the Border Patrol has more latitude than local law enforcement officers. A federal immigration agent need only have “reasonable suspicion” that someone is in the country illegally to begin questioning that person; a local cop, on the other hand, needs “probable cause.”

So Arpaio wants all the discretion that comes with impersonating a federal officer but -- whether he realizes it or not -- he’s still a local law enforcement officer. For a time, thanks to an ill-conceived agreement with the federal government, he had just enough authority to pretend otherwise. But hopefully those days are over -- for good.

Frankly, I’m surprised it took this long for Arpaio to go off the rails. I’ve known him since I worked for the Arizona Republic in the late 1990s. Back then, Sheriff Joe -- while still lusting for newspaper ink and television time -- stayed away from the immigration issue. Like many other sheriffs and police chiefs around the country, he believed the federal government shouldn’t pawn its responsibilities off on local law enforcement.

But that was before Arpaio, who is really more politician than peace officer, discovered the nativist vote. After that, he changed course and began acting like Lou Dobbs with a badge. Now he sees himself as a one-man task force charged with stopping an invasion of dishwashers, landscapers, and nannies, many of whom work for the same folks who voted for him.

One man is right. Let’s hope the Obama administration keeps it that way.