'America's Toughest Sheriff' Takes on Illegals

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

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.

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.

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.

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?"

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.

There are so many illegal immigrants in Arizona that even those who do not commit crimes have become a major irritant in the eyes of many. Last month the town council in nearby Cave Creek — part of Arpaio's county — passed an ordinance banning loitering and prohibiting drivers from stopping to pick people up.

But the labor market still seeks them out. For six years Cave Creek's Good Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church has offered itself as a safe place, no questions asked, for employers to meet laborers. This month Arpaio's deputies began random traffic stops of vehicles leaving the church, arresting any illegal immigrants found inside.

"It's clear that we've been targeted," said the Rev. Glenn Jenks, the pastor at Good Shepherd. "And I think we've been targeted because there is a sentiment in some of the community leaders here — they just want to run these guys out of town."

But Jenks believes that Arpaio is misreading the realities of illegal immigration.

"The drive that brings them here is one of the most basic and powerful drives, and that is for a father to feed his children," said Jenks. "And I think a lot of people underestimate that — they think that if they can just make it a little uncomfortable for them they'll go home. Some will, but the vast majority won't. More will just come. And they'll keep coming and keep coming."

Some may be wary of the sheriff's gunslinger approach, but he clearly has his supporters. In January the state will add yet another law to its anti-immigrant arsenal, penalizing employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants. Arpaio can't wait — at age 75 he has an approval rating of 80 percent in Maricopa County, which is why he also can't wait till next year when he plans to run for his fifth term in office.

"Every time they blast me, my polls go up," he said. "That's how stupid these people are. They don't understand that the public wants something done about illegal immigration."

When "Nightline" approached some of the illegal immigrants who are the object of Arpaio's contempt, they ran from the camera. But when we explained we only wanted to ask questions, some come forward.

Do they think it's harder now for them?

"Yes, it's harder," one said, "because they don't want us to work here."

And then he added, "What are the gringos going to do once we are all gone? We are the ones who do all the work around here."

It is a fair question, but it's not one that Arpaio worries about.