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.

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.


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