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Has 'America's Toughest Sheriff' Lost It?

Local community organizers are calling on the DHS to go further in stripping rogue Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s powers.

Editor's note: A video clip of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio walking out of the interview appears in the window to our right.

Last week, the Obama administration announced that it  was renewing some of Maricopa County (Arizona) Sheriff Joe Arpaio's federal immigration authority, even as Arpaio openly defied the feds' decision to strip him of street-level immigration enforcement.

The sheriff, who on Friday launched a major anti-immigrant sweep in the Phoenix suburbs, arresting 66 people, will continue to act as a federal immigration agent in the county jails.

Since 2007, Arpaio has been authorized to carry out immigration enforcement under an agreement known as 287(g), which contracts out immigration enforcement to local law enforcement agencies and which, in theory, is supposed to target "criminal illegal aliens."

The problems with such agreements have been well documented: With woefully inadequate federal oversight, the program's "largest impact has been on law-abiding immigrant communities," according to a watchdog group's recent report, and it has also resulted in "reluctance among immigrants to contact police if they are victims or witnesses of crimes because of the risk of being jailed or deported themselves."

Such problems have been particularly glaring in Arpaio's immigrant hunts; the sheriff is being investigated by the Department of Justice over allegations of racial profiling. In light of the sheriff's record of abusing his 287(g) authority, Arpaio recently found out that under his new contract with the feds, he would no longer be authorized to carry out street-level immigration enforcement.

The self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff" in America quickly denounced his Department of Homeland Security partners, calling them "liars," and vowed to continue to arrest "illegal aliens" even if he was no longer permitted to do so on behalf of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency: "If ICE refuses to take 'em," he declared at a press conference, "then I'll take a little trip to the border."

On CNN, he boasted to a bewildered Wolf Blitzer of having "tricked" DHS by signing the new 287(g) agreement. He also declared on CNN that now he "w[ould]n't have to worry about the feds looking over my shoulder." Oh, and all this in the wake of the sheriff telling GQ that he thinks Mexican migrants are "dirty."

Perplexingly, Arpaio has repeatedly claimed that he still has federal authority to carry out immigration enforcement on the streets, 287(g) or no. However, all the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office offered to inquiring journalists such as the Phoenix New Times’ Stephen Lemons to back up the claim was an interpretation that originated with the Federation on American Immigration Reform -- an organization classified as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center. The "law-and-order" sheriff's blatant disregard for the actual laws that limit his power is so striking that even his ally Glenn Beck couldn't help but giggle at the contradiction.

It was, in other words, the response of an official who has come to expect total impunity.

Last summer, I interviewed the sheriff and asked about some of his abuses of power under the 287(g) agreement— abuses like the racial profiling documented by a Pulitzer-winning investigation in the East Valley Tribune . His response: to storm out of the room, calling after his press officer -- one of his five PR staff ( watch video).

The belief that he should not have to answer for his actions has been a hallmark of Arpaio's dealings with the press -- as the staff of local papers like the Phoenix New Times know only too well. Arpaio once went so far as to have the paper's executives arrested under an obscure state law prohibiting the publication of a public official's address on the Web after the newsweekly published a series on the sheriff's real estate dealings.

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