2009Local Reporting

REASONABLE DOUBT: Joe Arpaio's evolution

Mariposa County's sheriff has changed his attitude toward illegal immigration over the past few years
Paul Giblin
July 9, 2008

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s public position on illegal immigration has taken an increasingly harder edge during the past three years. At the same time, he’s built a national profile off his high-profile enforcement tactics.

As recently as June 2005, Arpaio was much more lenient toward most illegal immigrants.

“I don’t expect to concentrate on some guy in a truck with six illegals,” Arpaio told The Associated Press at the time. “I want to go after the professional smugglers who do this for money, the top people.”

Now, he has a different approach.

“I have a philosophy in my 48 years of law enforcement, which may be strange, this old fashioned philosophy,” Arpaio said. “You hit everybody from the bottom to the top. Any crime.”

In fact, his human smuggling unit has concentrated nearly exclusively on illegal immigrants riding in trucks — not violent “coyotes” who run drop houses or Mexican kingpins who operate well-organized smuggling cartels.

A Tribune investigation into the unit’s operation shows that in 2006 and 2007, the first two years it was in place, MCSO deputies arrested only low-level participants in human smuggling rings — a handful of drivers and drop house guards, plus hundreds of immigrants picked up mainly during highway stops as they were making their way out of the county.

In the past few months, Arpaio has expanded his operation to include “crime suppression/anti-illegal immigration” sweeps during which dozens of deputies and members of his volunteer posse target urban areas in the county to catch illegal immigrants.

His officers stop motorists who drive with broken license-plate lights or cracked windshields, or commit other traffic violations. Sometimes he catches people with outstanding criminal warrants, but the illegal immigrants he has snared in the sweeps have been simple laborers, not the top-echelon operators of smuggling operations.

Arpaio said his public posture on illegal immigration simply reflects a change in state law, which has been interpreted to mean that immigrants themselves can be charged with smuggling. Arizona’s law against human smuggling took effect in August 2005, allowing police officers to arrest illegal immigrants who pay smugglers to transport them into the U.S.

“Now, there’s a law,” Arpaio told the Tribune last month. “Once there’s a law, the sheriff forgets the compassion and he enforces the law. That’s the way I am.”

Arpaio began focusing his law enforcement operations heavily on illegal immigration shortly after the state’s human-smuggling law went into effect on Aug. 12, 2005. The law stipulates that both smugglers and the people they bring across the border can be found guilty of midlevel felonies, facing up to four years in prison.

It’s a political situation that Arpaio has seized as the national debate over immigration has escalated and Arpaio himself has come increasingly under fire for what some civic leaders and other police chiefs see as overzealous enforcement or even political grandstanding.

Former Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley believes Arpaio’s intent is to play to the media.

“He’s a master at it,” said Romley, county attorney from 1988 to 2004. Arpaio was elected sheriff in 1992, so Romley was county attorney for much of the time Arpaio has been sheriff.

The two Republican officials clashed over a number of issues , including once when Romley decided not to prosecute a series of prostitution arrests that were made after undercover sheriff’s personnel engaged in sex acts with suspects.

Arpaio’s changing public stance on illegal immigration fits a pattern, said Romley.

“If something, some way of engaging a law enforcement issue, can politically benefit Joe, or keep him in good favor with the public, Joe seems to go that way,” Romley said. “He can flip on a dime. And I think he did that with illegal immigration.”

When Arpaio entered the debate over illegal immigration, he filled a void for those frustrated with local police departments’ unwillingness to take on the problem, said Mike O’Neil, a pollster and president of O’Neil Associates Market Research in Tempe.

“People want something done about immigration, and there was a perception that nobody was doing anything. The sheriff stepped into that and I think the first reaction of people was, 'Well, at last somebody’s doing something,’” O’Neil said.

By then, Arpaio already was the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” who housed jail inmates in outdoor tents, put them on chain gangs, issued them pink underwear and hung a lighted “Vacancy” sign above his jail. He was the proud, throwback lawman who wore a miniature Colt .45 tie pin.

He set about becoming the toughest on immigration, too. Arpaio instructed deputies to arrest everyone involved in illegal immigration — the top people and the six guys in a pickup, alike.

Just three years ago, that philosophy was much different. Then, Arpaio likened human smuggling to drug smuggling. “We don’t go after the addicts on the street. We go after the peddlers. Same philosophy,” he told the AP in July 2005.

Also that month, Arpaio’s deputies investigated a triple-murder case in Queen Creek that involved a family of illegal immigrants. Rodrigo Cervantes Zavala was suspected of killing his children’s grandparents and an uncle, then fleeing to Mexico with his children, 3-year-old Jennifer and 1-year-old Bryan.

“We want those kids back in the U.S.,” Arpaio told the Tribune then. “I want them back with their mother.”

Their mother, Isabel Acosta, was an illegal immigrant living in Maricopa County. Days later, after Mexican authorities recovered the children near Puerto Vallarta, Acosta chastised U.S. authorities for allowing Zavala to slip across the border into Mexico. The public outcry against Acosta was instant and vicious, but Arpaio defended her.

“I’m not going to criticize her,” he told the Tribune. “If that’s what she said, she probably just doesn’t realize how law enforcement operates here.”

But nationally as well as locally, immigration reform and immigration enforcement were becoming two of the most charged issues leading into the 2006 federal and state elections. U.S. Sen. John McCain’s support for a federal immigration reform package nearly derailed the Arizona Republican’s presidential campaign before it began.

Against that backdrop, Arpaio’s new Human Smuggling Unit made its first arrest in March 2006 with little fanfare. Two months later, the sheriff was generating headlines across the country with his new get-tough attitude.

He told The Washington Times: “My message is clear: If you come here and I catch you, you’re going straight to jail. We’re going to arrest any illegal who violates this new law, and I’m not going to turn these people over to federal authorities so they can have a free ride back to Mexico.”

He told The New York Times: “I have compassion for the Mexican people, but if you come here illegally, you are going to jail.”

He told The Washington Post: “My message to the illegals is this: Stay out of Maricopa County, because I’m the sheriff here.”

In August 2006, four months after the unit’s launch, Arpaio took credit for a crackdown that he believed was scaring illegal immigrants away.

“I’ll tell you one thing: It’s stopping the illegals from coming through Maricopa County,” he said on “The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer,” a PBS program.

“They know they’re going to jail and not the free ride in an air-conditioned bus back to Mexico,” Arpaio said. “So we’re having difficulty finding these people. I have a volunteer posse out there along with my deputies. We’re proactive, and we’re going to arrest illegals and the smugglers that come into this county.”

At about the same time, four statewide ballot measures to curb illegal immigration were receiving strong public support. The initiatives were designed to deny bail to illegal immigrants charged with serious crimes, make English the state’s official language, prevent illegal immigrants from receiving punitive damages in lawsuits and ban them from receiving in-state tuition to attend state universities.

Voters approved all four.

By June 2007, Arpaio was fully engaged as a self-made anti-illegal immigration tempest. His office even issued a news release taking credit for an increase in fees charged by international smuggling rings. The news release ended with this quote from Arpaio: “Watch out. I will soon implement a new controversial enforcement program in the fight against illegal immigration.” That new program turned out to be a toll-free tip line, encouraging people to report other people they thought might be in the country illegally.

In October, he began allowing his deputies to moonlight as security guards at M.D. Pruitt’s Home Furnishings store in Phoenix, just down the street from a day-laborer gathering center. Protesters soon followed, and that led to weekly Saturday clashes between deputies and protesters on both sides of the immigration issue. Arpaio himself waded into the mosh pit of screaming demonstrators, a highly charged moment that played out on TV news and in the local papers.

That morphed into regular sweeps that have continued into this year. The two-day sweeps that began near Pruitt’s in Phoenix and in Fountain Hills, where Arpaio lives, hopscotched to north Phoenix, Guadalupe and, last month, Mesa.

He found new opponents at every stop, including Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon and Mesa police Chief George Gascón, but still commanded solid public support — about 60 percent, according to a survey conducted by Arizona State University/KAET-TV (Channel 8), though that support has gradually slipped.

As Arpaio’s opinion on immigration enforcement has evolved, his public stature has risen to the point that he’s influencing the national dialogue, policy experts say.

At a minimum, he’s emboldening forces on both sides of the issue as he pioneers local enforcement tactics that others merely talk about, said John Fonte, senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, in Washington, D.C.

“It shows that these things can be done, because a lot of the argument is that it’s impossible to deal with this problem, there’s nothing that you can do because it’s too vast,” he said. “This shows the possibility.”

It also shows that Arpaio can recognize and latch onto trends, said Lawrence M. Mead, a professor of political science at New York University who also tracks immigration policy.

“What this sheriff indicates is that localities are taking matters into their own hands to try to enforce the law against the illegals,” Mead said. “That’s a change from the past, because until recently, the attitude was that localities had no authority to do this because immigration was a federal issue.”

On June 18 of this year, nearly two years after the sheriff said deputies were having difficulty finding illegal immigrants, he held a news conference to announce that deputies had booked their 1,000th suspected illegal immigrant on state smuggling charges.

Arpaio’s human smuggling unit, which has grown to 18 members, has yet to arrest a single boss.

Sidebar: Key dates in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and illegal immigration enforcement

Tribune writer Ryan Gabrielson contributed to this report.