PHOENIX — An Arizona sheriff known nationally for his firm opposition on illegal immigration took the witness stand Tuesday and faced accusations that his trademark immigration sweeps amount to racial profiling against Hispanics.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, testifying in his defense at a civil trial over a lawsuit brought by some Hispanics, was questioned about statements that critics say show prejudiced thinking.
Sheriff Arpaio said the statement about immigrants was taken out of context, adding that if a person were to cross the U.S.-Mexico border on foot over four days in the desert that person “could be dirty. That’s the context on how I used that word.”
He also was asked about a 2007 appearance on a national cable television news show. CNN host Lou Dobbs spoke with Sheriff Arpaio at the time about comparisons between his department and the KKK, about which the sheriff said, “I think it’s an honor. It means we are doing something.”
The self-styled America’s Toughest Sheriff wasn’t projecting his usual bluster. He said he had the flu and spoke in a hushed tone, clearing his throat often.
Plaintiffs say Sheriff Arpaio’s office singled out Hispanics in the immigration patrols and accuse him of launching some sweeps based on emails and letters that don’t claim crimes but complain only that “dark-skinned people” are congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish.
Sheriff Arpaio has long denied racial-profiling accusations and said Tuesday, “We don’t arrest people because of the color of their skin.”
During the sweeps that are at the center of the case, sheriff’s deputies flood an area of a city — in some cases, heavily Latino areas — over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.
Illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by Sheriff Arpaio’s office since January 2008, according to figures provided by the sheriff’s department, which hasn’t conducted any such patrols since October.
The plaintiffs aren’t seeking money in the suit. They are seeking a declaration that Sheriff Arpaio’s office racially profiles Hispanics and an order requiring policy changes.
If Sheriff Arpaio loses the case, he won’t face jail time or fines.
The trial began last week and is expected to close next week. It will be decided by U.S. District Judge Murray Snow.
The judge hasn’t ruled on the ultimate question of racial profiling but said in a December ruling that a fact finder could interpret some of Sheriff Arpaio’s public statements as endorsements of racial profiling.