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'America's Toughest Sheriff' Takes on Illegals

Arizona's Sheriff Arpaio has a controversial interpretation of immigration laws.

ByABC News
December 26, 2008, 11:11 PM

Oct. 18, 2007 — -- 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."

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.