'America's Toughest Sheriff' Takes on Illegals

Arpaio wants everyone to know that he can always make more room at the county jail, with its always flashing neon "vacancy" sign. He's built a tent city to handle the overflow. With no air conditioning in the blistering desert heat and just two spare meals a day that cost the county 15 cents each, the conditions there rival the prison for enemy combatants in Guantanamo Bay. The jail seems geared to punishment, rather than rehabilitation.

"These are convicted people," Arpaio said as he gave "Nightline" a tour of the facility. "Why do you say rehabilitation? Why don't we use the word punishment anymore? I'll use it. You do something wrong, you lose your privileges and you're punished for it. So I'm not afraid to say punishment."

And a little humiliation, too. If you've heard of Sheriff Joe, you've probably heard of the pink handcuffs — pink is a recurring theme in Maricopa County. As well, his prisoners wear old-fashioned black-and-white prison stripes, accented with pink socks, pink underwear and pink sheets.

The county still has a very high crime rate, but Arpaio believes that his approach is working.

"When you look at our jail population, we have 10,000 — at least 25 percent are illegals," he said. "That's 25 percent that can't commit any crimes if they're behind bars, right?"

Simple Solutions to Complex Problems?

Arpaio says he's concentrating on illegal immigrants "because a lot of them commit crimes."

But the facts simply don't support that point, which may explain why the sheriff's policy doesn't have the support of of a single police chief in Maricopa County. George Gascon, the chief of police in Mesa, population 500,000, says that illegal immigrants aren't committing a disproportionate number of crimes in his community.

"Statistically that's not the case," he said.

Gascon notes that violent crime has gone down in Mesa over the last year, while crime in the areas of the county policed by the sheriff has been going up.

"I think it really comes down to looking at what it is that you want policing to do," he said. "If you take a large amount of your officers' time and you tie them up arresting cooks and gardeners and carpenters that are here without a visa, but [are] certainly not committing predatory crimes, what you're doing is removing time that would otherwise be better invested in dealing with people that are involved with gang activity, narcotics sales, robbing people and doing all those other crimes."

Gascon questions the constitutionality of some of the sheriff's actions and wonders whether the traffic stops amount to racial profiling. Which is why, unless illegal immigrants are committing crimes — beyond simply being in the country — the chief leaves it to federal agents to root out illegals.

"The problem with this issue is that you have very complicated areas of the law. You have a very complicated national problem that includes economics and includes political realities both internally and externally," said Gascon, "and you have some people that are trying to apply very simple solutions to very complex problems."

Is the sheriff one of those people?

"I will let you be the judge of that," Gascon replied with a smile.

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