Despite Criticism, 'America's Toughest Sheriff' Expects to be Re-elected

Arizona county Sheriff Joe Arpaio vows to continue fighting illegal immigration.

— -- He is the Crusading Sheriff.

Joe Arpaio, who likes to be known as Sheriff Joe, is determined to get rid of every illegal immigrant in Maricopa County, no matter what the cost.

"I'm an equal opportunity law enforcement and incarcerator -- I lock everybody up," he said.

With his ever-present angry growl, the man who has been called "America's Toughest Sheriff" speaks for a good number of frustrated Americans when the issue is illegal immigration. But he has also drawn fire for his aggressive pursuit of illegal immigrants, casting a wide net by raiding local business in search of illegal employees and using traffic violations as excuses to search the vehicles of anyone whom he thinks shouldn't be here.

Using traffic stops and raids around the county, Sheriff's Deputies have sent thousands of illegal immigrants to Maricopa County jails, and it has made Sheriff Joe a local hero to many in the Phoenix area. Which is why he is confident he will win re-election for a fifth term next month. But he has also become a target, for what his critics see as unconstitutional abuses of power.

Every day now you'll find protesters outside Sheriff Joe's office. The Mayor of Phoenix, Phil Gordon, thinks the Sheriff in his county is out of control.

"What we have going on is racial profiling," Gordon said. "What we have going on now has just been widespread sweeps encompassing such a large net that U.S. citizens are being dragged into this."

Gordon has asked the Department of Justice to look into the sheriff's tactics.

Running against the sheriff in the November 4th election is Dan Saban, who actually switched party affiliation so he could be a candidate.

"[Arpaio] is compromising the U.S. constitution by violating people's rights with racial profiling," Saban told me. "He's taken a very aggressive stance, an emotional stance, he's obsessed with illegal immigration to the point of he's compromised American value, he's violating the constitution by stopping people for no reason."

The Sheriff's Deputies are told that a minor traffic violation is reason enough to pull over whoever they want. "Nightline" saw just that when we rode with Sgt. Manny Madrid. A truck was pulled over for straddling two lanes.

"Basically he was pulled over for a traffic violation and the deputies who just showed up now are going to screen the individuals inside of their status to be in the country," Madrid explained.

Arpaio doesn't think his deputies are crossing the line.

"I don't have any evidence of [racial profiling] right now," he said. "But if they do, everybody makes a mistake, but I'm not going to stop a program if someone makes a mistake or that issue comes up -- never."

Arpaio 'Not Afraid to Say Punishment'

Outside the jail a "Vacancy" sign flashes.

The sheriff thinks the neon sign is pretty funny, but a decision this week by a U.S. District Court judge made it clear that the judge finds the conditions inside the jail anything but amusing. The ruling is nothing less than a stinging rebuke of the way Sheriff Joe runs his prisons.

Arpaio's infamous "tent city," teeming with overflow from the County jails, has no air conditioning in the blistering desert heat and offers just two spare meals a day that cost the county 15 cents each. More than 2,600 lawsuits have been filed against the sheriff, most about prison conditions.

The American Civil Liberties Union won the case against Sheriff Joe this week by showing the court that the he is feeding prisoners moldy bread and rotten fruit and routinely denying them medical attention.

"Nightline" asked Arpaio if the goal at his jails was rehabilitation or simply punishment.

"That's a good question," he replied. "These are convicted people. 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 – as well as wearing prison stripes, the men here get pink socks, pink underwear, and pink sheets.

The court ruled that the conditions in Sheriff Joe's jail are unconstitutional. The ruling will force the county to give prisoners proper medical and mental health care, adequate food as well as soap and toilet paper.

But despite the mounting criticism, the lawsuits, the investigations, Sheriff Joe is up in the pre-election polls and says he and his crusade against illegal immigration are here to stay.

"They can make all the allegations they want," Arpaio said. "But they're not going to scare me away, make me stop enforcing all the laws. I took an oath of office to enforce all the laws."

Does he think he'll be re-elected?

"Of course I am," he said. "I will continue my programs, I won't back down. I will continue to operate those jails the way I have for 16 years and I will continue to enforce the illegal immigration laws and next year if a president takes away my authority with the federal government, I'm not worried. I still have the state laws, so I'm not going away."