'America's Toughest Sheriff' Takes on Illegals

Long before the sun comes up to bake the Arizona desert, the Maricopa County sheriff's deputies get ready for the day's pursuit.

Their prey? Illegal immigrants. Their method? Look for minor traffic violations. "Nightline" recently rode along with Sgt. Manny Madrid.

"The objective is basically to make stops on these vehicles, screen these individuals [to see] whether they're in this country illegally," said Madrid.

With 4 million residents, Maricopa (which includes the cities of Phoenix and Mesa) claims to be the fastest-growing county in America. Illegal immigrants are helping fuel that growth with their numbers and labor, and in Maricopa County they aren't waiting for Washington to stop haggling over immigration reform. That's because they have a no-nonsense sheriff who likes to do things … his way.

He's Joe Arpaio, who after four terms as the elected sheriff, delights at being called "America's Toughest Sheriff." Arpaio has his own unique — and controversial — interpretation of state and federal immigration laws.

"One thing that I'm doing is enforcing the law," said Arpaio. "I think some people think that's unusual. I'm an equal opportunity law enforcement and incarcerator — I lock everybody up. So when people say, 'Why is he enforcing illegal immigration?' Well, because it's illegal, that's why I'm doing it."

'Don't Come Into This County'

Arpaio's sentiments are made very clear on the sheriff's trucks; their sides are emblazoned with signs that read "Do Not Enter Illegally."

Then there's the hot line, where people can leave information or evidence about crimes involving illegal immigration. Arpaio says from 2,200 calls the hot line has received, his deputies have arrested about 80 illegal immigrants.

"The message I like to send out to those that have committed crimes, including illegal aliens that come into this county illegally, is don't come into this county," he said. "Go somewhere else."

The sheriff is aggressively applying federal laws and a new Arizona state law that makes it a criminal offense to smuggle illegal immigrants. As he sees it, the state law gives him the power to arrest the migrants too, as accessories. A simple traffic violation is all that deputies need to look for.

While on the road with Madrid, we came upon a truck that had been pulled over for straddling two lanes.

"They've got a vehicle stopped and waiting to be screened. It looks like we may have four people who may be illegal," Madrid said.

The man who was driving the truck said he wasn't planning to hire the migrants; he insisted he was just a good Samaritan who picked up a bunch of hitchhikers. He wasn't charged with anything more than a minor traffic violation. But three of the four men he was chauffeuring faced much more serious consequences. They admitted to being in the United States illegally.

Prisoners in Pink

One of them whose name was Jose said that he arrived in the United States six months ago and had been working wherever he could, mostly odd jobs in construction.

"I didn't do anything," Jose said — except cross into the United States illegally.

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