PHOENIX | The man who likes to call himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., is planning a Friday showdown with the feds.
The sheriff has announced he will defy the U.S. Department of Homeland Security by doing a street sweep for illegal immigrants one day after the expiration of the agreement that has permitted him to conduct such operations for the past three years. The sheriff has said he expects the deal not to be extended, though federal officials have remained publicly noncommittal.
Deputies, and Sheriff Arpaio, will stake out an intersection somewhere in the Phoenix metro area to stop cars for traffic violations - everything from speeding to broken taillights to driving while intoxicated. Both drivers and passengers will be held if deputies determine that they are illegal immigrants - regardless of how minor was the initial infraction.
Sheriff Arpaio is charging ahead because he claims he has jurisdiction under a 1996 federal law allowing police to detain someone briefly if that person could be in the country illegally.
“We will call Immigration and Customs Enforcement [ICE] to see if they will take them from us,” Sheriff Arpaio told The Washington Times. “And if they tell me to let them go, I guess I’ll have to transport them myself to the border [about 175 miles] and turn them over to the Border Patrol.”
Sheriff Arpaio, 77 but looking 10 years younger, has been shaking up Maricopa County for 17 years, and he’s not ready to quiet down: “I just got re-elected last year, but I’m going to run again, and I’ve already raised a lot of money. They’ll have to put up with me for another seven years.”
With customary bravado, he will announce on his Web site the Friday sweep’s location shortly before it happens, enough time so protesters can show up: “The same ones who are out in front of my building every day calling me Hitler and a Nazi. I’m the poster boy for the open borders crowd.”
“We’re doing it the day after Oct. 15, in order to play a little game with them,” Sheriff Arpaio said. He said he expects to use a “new secret weapon,” but declined to say what it is.
Oct. 15 is the day he expects to find out whether federal officials will approve his pending application for a renewal of the contract with ICE to detain illegal immigrants. In the past few weeks, the sheriff has been loudly complaining that the contract will no longer allow street sweeps of the kind he plans Friday, potentially angering federal authorities, who still have the power not to extend the agreement at all.
For the past three years, Sheriff Arpaio has been working under what is known as a 287(g) contract, named for the section of a federal immigration-reform law that established the program in 1996.
That law allows for partnerships that permit local law-enforcement agencies to perform immigration functions traditionally reserved for the federal government - such as holding all illegal immigrants when arrested and bringing them to jail until they can be turned over to ICE for deportation. If immigrants are convicted, they serve their time and are then deported. If they are acquitted or charges are dropped, they are held until they can be deported.
About 30,000 immigrants were arrested by police and deputies in cities and towns throughout Maricopa County over the past three years and were then booked into Sheriff Arpaio’s jail for various crimes. The dispute with immigration authorities doesn’t concern those inmates.
Others - about 300 - were arrested when Sheriff Arpaio raided work sites in police actions against employers who hire illegals in violation of a state law. Still others - about 3,400 - were picked up when Sheriff Arpaio arrested the “coyotes” who bring illegal immigrants across the border into Arizona.
But the main controversy has focused on a different group of 300 people - those whom Sheriff Arpaio has detained in street-level policing. “I’m not doing it, but they like to say about me that I racially profile,” he said.
Alessandra Soler Meetze, director of the American Civil Liberties Union in Arizona, said Sheriff Arpaio goes way beyond what ICE approves.
The contract with ICE “indicated he was to go after the most dangerous criminals, drug smugglers, gang activity, that kind of thing. Instead he’s targeting people because of race and rounds up mostly people who are here legally. He ends up arresting mostly U.S. citizens,” she said.
The ACLU has filed a lawsuit accusing Sheriff Arpaio of racial profiling and expects to start discovery motions soon.
“The ACLU would like to see 287(g) completely eliminated,” Ms. Meetze said.
Sheriff Arpaio said that his relationship with federal officials has been fairly smooth until recently.
“Immigration and Customs Enforcement was happy to sign an agreement with me three years ago, because I had the second or third largest jail in the country, and I would identify, book and detain illegals under the agreement,” Sheriff Arpaio said. “In a way they gave us authority to act as ICE agents. We do all the work, arrest them and turn them over to ICE.”
Sheriff Arpaio received no money under the federal contract, but ICE trained 160 of his deputies on how to handle immigrants and do paperwork. He was also given computers to use on the operation.
But things changed quickly this year.
“The mayor of Phoenix went to the U.S. attorney general and it took 60 days for the Obama administration to come after me,” he said.
A House committee held hearings on Sheriff Arpaio. The Justice Department also began an investigation of his actions against immigrants, a probe with which he is refusing to cooperate.
“It’s all based on what they read in The Washington Post and the New York Times,” he said. “It’s all innuendo.”
Then federal officials gave him a new version of his 287(g) contract in July. When he first read it, it seemed much the same as the old one, he said.
He had 90 days to agree to it, but there was one sticky issue. Officials told him he could no longer do street-level enforcement and turn over noncriminal aliens to immigration authorities. He went ahead and signed the contract, but has said he doesn’t know what will happen next.
But last week, he predicted that Washington won’t renew the deal because the Homeland Security Department, which oversees ICE, is now in different political hands.
There have been glitches when the sheriff’s office did its street enforcement.
“One night, deputies did a street sweep in Chandler and called ICE to pick up people and were told to let them go,” Sheriff Arpaio said.
Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former governor of Arizona who tried then to pull funding for Sheriff Arpaio’s anti-immigration efforts, held a press conference and claimed that the sheriff’s deputies voluntarily let the immigrants go. The next day, deputies stopped six noncriminal illegal immigrants and this time “taped” the ICE agents declining to pick up the individuals, Sheriff Arpaio said.
Virginia Kice, Western regional communications director for ICE, said that all 66 police agencies participating in the 287(g) program nationwide were given the same agreement with the same conditions and that an announcement would be made late this week about what had happened.
“Previously, the agreements were written individually, but now they’re all being standardized,” she said. “Sheriff Joe has been quite vocal about this, but we’re not discussing the situation until the outcome of the process.”
Sheriff Arpaio still contends that state law gives him the authority to continue doing almost everything he has done before. State laws require him to combat human smuggling and employment of illegal workers, he said.
The career of Joe Arpaio began with Army service in the Korean War and continued through work for the Las Vegas and Washington, D.C., police departments and as a federal narcotics agent in Mexico and other locations.
After a 30-year career in the federal government, he retired while serving as head of the Drug Enforcement Administration in Arizona. He and his wife started a travel business.
But after 10 years, he became restless and ran for Maricopa County sheriff in 1992, starting out by knocking out the Republican incumbent in a primary. From there, he took off like a roiling dust storm in the middle of the Arizona storm.
One of his first headline-provoking actions was building what is now called “Tent City” to cope with overcrowding in his jail.
“The old sheriff never told me in advance the jail was overcrowded, but I also knew that I was going to need a lot more space for all the criminals I was going to arrest in the future. So I got 70 Korean War tents, and I put them up next to the dump and the dog pound. After all, the jail should not be a Hilton,” Sheriff Arpaio said.
That was in August 1993, but the tent city concept is still in use. He’s also famous for dressing inmates in striped uniforms and pink underwear. He even stopped serving salt and pepper with inmates’ meals - a move he claims has saved taxpayers $20,000 a year.
Twelve years ago, he introduced chain gangs to the jail for his male inmates; two years later, he started putting female inmates on chain gangs, too. The gangs do landscaping and cleaning along county highways. Last week, the Discovery Channel ran a documentary, “Maricopa County: Chain Gang,” that focused on chain-gang members and their struggles.
The sheriff drives a black Cadillac, not a cruiser, and carries no gun. Married for 52 years, Sheriff Arpaio has two grown children, plus grandchildren. He likes to say he has “a racially mixed family.” He proudly notes that his son-in-law, Phil Boas, is on the editorial board of the Arizona Republic, a newspaper that attacks him loudly and regularly.
“He has to put up a wall between us when he’s at work,” Sheriff Arpaio said.
He doesn’t fear retaliation from the federal government.
“I’m not worried about a thing. I’m a fighter,” Sheriff Arpaio said. “I’ve been a federal official and worked all over the world fighting for the United States. So now I have to take on the federal government. They’re bullying me and doing everything they can to try to intimidate local law enforcement.”