Has 'America's Toughest Sheriff' Lost It?

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.

Today, Arpaio bars the entire New Times staff from attending Maricopa County Sheriff's Office press conferences.

Arpaio has, up until now, commanded the largest force of DHS deputized local law enforcement agents under 287(g) -- a program introduced by the Clinton administration and massively expanded under George W. Bush. Since Obama came into office, the program has been further expanded -- with 11 new agreements added.

However, in the context of widespread concerns about 287(g), and Arpaio more specifically, the new administration also initiated a review of the program, and launched the DOJ investigation into Arpaio's civil rights record.

By the time I interviewed Arpaio in June, his department had already come under investigation by the DOJ, and he seemed genuinely bewildered by this apparent fissure in his reign of impunity: "I've never had so much heat," he told me.

Over the course of the interview, he repeatedly denounced the local community organizers and muckracking local journalists whose work has been instrumental in galvanizing a movement against him, as well as in documenting and disseminating evidence of the sheriff's abuses -- not least through an activist-run YouTube channel. Arpaio was visibly disgusted by the fact that this evidence was now coming before the eyes of the DOJ investigators.

Under his new agreement with DHS, Arpaio will face greater legal restrictions in street-level operations, according to the ACLU. The sheriff will, however, still be able to make use of Arizona's harsh immigration laws, including a human-smuggling law that in Maricopa County has been legally interpreted to allow for the prosecution of undocumented immigrants as co-conspirers in their own smuggling -- a felony charge (in contrast, entering the U.S. illegally is a civil misdemeanor charge).

Moreover, the Obama administration announced on Friday that it  is renewing Arpaio and 60 of his deputies' federal immigration authority in Maricopa County jails.

Arpaio's anticipated new federal contract offers little comfort to human rights groups, given that Arpaio has staked his reputation on denying the human rights of his prisoners (he proudly noted to me during the interview that the temperature in the tents where suspected illegal immigrants are forced to reside rises to 140 degrees in the summer, and Amnesty International has even documented jail torture under Arpaio's watch).

Moreover, given that Arpaio's street-level enforcement reportedly netted only 264 suspected illegal immigrants, in contrast to nearly 30,000 suspects identified in the jails (where suspects arrested by other law enforcement agencies are also processed), the reduction of the sheriff's street powers will not dramatically reduce the number of people the sheriff feeds into America's vast system of immigrant incarceration.

Nor does limiting local law enforcement agencies' immigration powers to jails necessarily stem racial profiling, according to the ACLU.

While a New York Times headline optimistically characterized the new contract as Arpaio getting his "wings clipped," those who have been working locally to hold the sheriff to account believe the feds must go much further. The New Times' Stephen Lemons told me that Arpaio losing his street authority was "a very small victory."

Noting that Arpaio still seems to falsely believe he has federal authority to carry out immigration enforcement on the streets (in fact, the sheriff has already announced that he will be executing one of his notorious "crime-suppression sweeps" today), Lemons believes "the only way to stop him is to use federal authority to curtail him."

"The Obama administration has to act," he said.

Local community organizers are also calling for Obama's DHS to go further in stripping Arpaio's powers; the Puente movement, which has been instrumental in past protests against Arpaio, staged a demonstration on Friday. Puente's Salvador Reza has been vocal in calling for an end to 287(g) altogether: "Terminen el 287(g). No lo remienden," he wrote in a recent column.

He is not alone: the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and more than 500 national and community organizations have recently written to Obama calling for the abolition of 287(g). Several major police associations also oppose the agreements.

So long as the feds maintain any of his federal authority under 287(g), Arpaio's actions will continue to exemplify the kinds of human-rights abuses such agreements inherently facilitate.

For what clearer illustration could there be of why 287(g) must be ended altogether than the feds' most notorious partner in the program -- a rogue sheriff with a record of racial profiling who is now threatening to deport suspected illegal immigrants himself?

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