By Terry Greene Sterling, National Journal
He was the country’s self-appointed immigration officer. Then the law started to catch up with him.
On the evening of July 22, America’s Toughest Sheriff ambled up to the lectern in a community center in Goodyear, Arizona, a suburb about 17 miles west of Phoenix. A short, thickly built man with thinning, slicked-back hair, square glasses, a chubby nose, and thin, determined lips, Joe Arpaio looked out at his audience. These were his people: a standing-room-only crowd of about 50 mostly gray-haired, enthusiastically applauding conservatives.
In this setting, even after five long years of seeing his power wane, Arpaio was still the tea party’s chosen lawman. Twenty-two years earlier, Republicans had elected him sheriff of Maricopa County, where he presided over 9,200 square miles of Sonoran Desert and two-thirds of the state’s population. Octogenarians trusted him because, at 82, he was one of them. Baby boomers, meanwhile, revered him for his grit. “I got a knack,” Arpaio told me earlier this year, “for knowing what the people want.”
The folks in Goodyear wanted to hear about his ongoing investigation of President Obama’s birth certificate, and about his much-hyped inquiry into the mysterious deaths of more than 20 dogs in a local kennel. (Arpaio’s aggressive enforcement efforts extend to animal cruelty.) But most of all, they wanted to hear his expert opinion on the latest immigration controversy—how to handle the more than 50,000 kids, primarily from Central America, who’d recently crossed into the United States without papers.
Arpaio’s solution was succinct and crowd-pleasing: “Send ‘em back in an air-conditioned airplane!” he said. On a more serious note, he advised Obama to cut off all foreign aid to Central America and Mexico, and to send the Border Patrol or U.S. military across the southern border to help Mexico “fix the illegal immigration” flowing up from Central America.
He only hinted at the legal troubles that plagued him, stemming from his controversial crusade to enforce immigration on the local level. “I’m investigated by everybody. I have monitors,” he said, referring to the court-ordered observers who now keep watch over his sheriff’s department. “You think I worry about monitors? Come on. I’ve been monitored by the White House. By the Department of Justice. By the ACLU. By the media. And by my wife!”
When he opened up the room to questions, a woman named Sue rose to say that coyotes—human smugglers—were “raping and doing horrible things” to the Central American kids. Obama was at fault, she was sure. But she had a question for the sheriff, since he was in the know: Was it true that Central American countries were deliberately sending their “sickest kids” north?
This was a softball; Arpaio has long railed about “illegals” being disease-carriers. “I remember when we were arresting illegal aliens,” Arpaio replied, “back when we had the authority, that a lot of them had TB. We had evidence in our jail. … And you’re telling me all these kids from Central America … that they don’t have medical problems? Come on.”
As he wrapped it up for the evening, Arpaio said he fully expected to be reelected for his seventh term in 2016, and that he planned to run again in 2020, when he’d be 88. If he had to campaign in a wheelchair, he’d do it. He’d be like Raymond Burr in the old TV show Ironside, he said. Only, he’d outdo Burr because he’d strap a .50-caliber machine gun to his chair.
He got a standing ovation. Speech over, Arpaio walked slowly into the reception hall. His bad leg gave out for a quick second, but he balanced himself. He straightened the jacket of his dark suit and posed for photos. “God bless you, Sheriff Joe,” a woman gushed. He shook hands with local candidates seeking his blessing in the upcoming GOP primaries. He signed a copy of his 1996 book, America’s Toughest Sheriff, and said, “I never read my books.” A mom introduced Arpaio to her three kids, all wearing braces and grinning. He fished in his pocket, and pulled out three cards bearing his portrait. The cards said: “Who is America’s Toughest Sheriff? It’s SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO.”
I’ve known and written about Arpaio throughout his two decades in office, and have found him to be a complicated, not particularly introspective, man who defies the simplistic explanations of fans and detractors. He can be disarmingly funny, yet brutally cold. I’ve asked him many times about the pain caused to Latino families caught up in his immigration raids, but he always eludes the question—a skill he’s perfected with reporters over the years. “Don’t blame me, I just enforce the law,” he’ll say. Or he will bash his critics for singling out the suffering of Latino families without acknowledging the suffering of other children whose parents languish in his jails. “We feel sorry for all the kids,” he recently told me, “but why don’t they talk about the general problem?”
These last three years have arguably been the toughest of his 50-year law-enforcement career, although he’s not the type to admit it. Now largely stripped of his immigration-enforcement powers, Arpaio has been reduced to holding forth on the subject to loyalists like the Goodyear Republicans and, occasionally, Fox News hosts Neil Cavuto and Sean Hannity.
The story of Joe Arpaio’s rise and decline is a personal and particular one, but it’s also a larger story of immigration policy in America. It’s a story that begins with paralysis in Congress. For years, the issue of illegal immigration has cried out for some kind of comprehensive national reform. But Congress’s inability to act left the door open for others, like Arpaio, to act instead. It left a political void that was filled by Arizona’s harsh immigration-enforcement laws—which were then adopted as models by other states. Arpaio, in turn, leaned on these laws to please his constituency, and to tout himself as a national model to sheriffs and police chiefs eager to take immigration enforcement into their own hands.
Eventually, though, while Congress dithered, the courts began to step in and define the constitutional limits of local immigration policing—a process that continues to threaten what little is left of Arpaio’s ability to arrest undocumented immigrants. The tale of do-it-yourself immigration enforcement in Maricopa County is the direct result of a national political system that simply cannot figure out what it wants to do on immigration—leaving characters like Arpaio and his antagonists in Arizona to fight it out on their own and test the legal limits of local control.
WHEN ARPAIO FIRST ran for sheriff in 1992, unseating an incumbent who’d botched a mass-murder investigation at a Buddhist temple, immigration was not an issue at all. In fact, Arpaio notably said during his early years as sheriff that he wouldn’t waste his crime-fighting resources chasing after undocumented dishwashers. He now says he made that statement because he didn’t have the enforcement authority to nab them back then. “Yeah, I said I would not lock up dishwashers, because there was no law at the time,” he recently told me.
Before his long run as sheriff, Arpaio, a child of the Great Depression, served in police forces in Las Vegas and Washington, then worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration for 22 years. With DEA, he and his wife, Ava, lived in Turkey, Mexico, Boston, San Antonio, Washington, and Chicago, before ending up in Phoenix, where he retired in 1982. He knew how to grab attention, flattering or not. In Phoenix, his drug-busting earned him the nickname “Nickel Bag Joe,” because he reportedly focused on picking off lower-level dealers instead of the big guys. He attributed the criticism to sour grapes and professional jealousy.
After Arpaio stepped down from DEA in 1982, he once told me, the press “forgot” him. He and Ava operated a travel agency. They bought real estate. He was bored.
When he became sheriff in 1993, the nation, Arizona included, was in the midst of a violent-crime wave. Arpaio promised to crack down hard, and once in office, he focused on becoming America’s Toughest Sheriff—and making sure everybody knew about it. He hired a seasoned television reporter, Lisa Allen, as his public-information officer. Allen knew about news holes, and the daily scramble to fill them. Arpaio’s ideas—the Korean War surplus tents in which he housed prisoners in stifling heat; the pink underwear and prison-stripe jumpsuits he had them wear; the volunteer posse of citizens assisting deputies; the chain gangs picking up litter—offered dozens of iterations of made-for-TV news events. For the benefit of television cameras, Arpaio remodeled his office into a schlocky Old West version of one of his famous jail tents. He and Allen alerted local reporters to a stream of colorful initiatives, such as sending out chain gangs to dig graves for the indigent or raiding the homes of animal-hoarders. The sheriff became a fixture on local airwaves and then, increasingly, on national and cable TV. The publicity drowned out reports of poor medical conditions and wrongful deaths in his jails.
Arpaio leveraged his celebrity into political power; his endorsement almost guaranteed a candidate’s success in Maricopa County or statewide. Arpaio’s support of Janet Napolitano, a Democrat, paved her way to the governorship in 2002. His subsequent political partnership with two Republican immigration hard-liners—Russell Pearce, a former chief deputy who was elected to the Arizona House in 2000, and Andrew Thomas, who was elected Maricopa County attorney in 2004—helped set the stage for Arizona’s punitive laws.
The state’s human-smuggling measure, signed by Napolitano in 2005, was supposed to target coyotes by charging them with felonies for smuggling. After consulting with Thomas, though, Arpaio’s deputies began arresting truckloads of unauthorized immigrants—charging them with conspiring to smuggle themselves into Arizona.
Next, in 2007, Arpaio entered into a partnership with the Bush administration’s Homeland Security Department to enforce immigration on the streets in Maricopa County through an agreement with Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
Then, before she became Homeland Security secretary under President Obama, Napolitano signed Arpaio’s favorite bill, the employer-sanctions law, which took effect in 2008. The measure enabled Arizona to punish employers who knowingly hired undocumented workers and—this is the part Arpaio liked—made it an aggravated felony to use a fake ID to work or try to find work. Soon Maricopa County deputies were raiding car washes and restaurants. As of July 2014, the sheriff’s department had targeted more than 80 workplaces and charged about 800 immigrants with identity-theft felonies.
If you were an undocumented immigrant, you did not want to be hit with a felony in Maricopa County. Arpaio and friends had championed a law, still on the books today, that made undocumented people who were charged with felonies ineligible for pretrial bail, meaning they could spend months in Arpaio’s “tough-love” jails before even having a hearing. Most gave up and pleaded guilty. After serving their sentences, they were turned over to federal authorities for deportation.
Arizona’s most infamous immigration statute—the “Show Me Your Papers” law, passed in 2010—turned all Arizona cops into immigration enforcers by requiring them to check the immigration status of anyone they stopped, arrested, or detained if they “reasonably” suspected the person was in the country without papers. Arpaio’s deputies never had a chance to enforce SB 1070 in earnest, because the Obama administration quickly sued Arizona over its constitutionality. Still, Arpaio’s use of the laws he did get to enforce created a sharp divide in Arizona between Latinos who felt targeted regardless of their immigration status and Anglos who didn’t understand why Latinos were offended by efforts to uphold the law. I covered several marches in Phoenix in which thousands of grim-faced Latinos walked for several miles, many toting signs that criticized Arpaio for breaking up families, only to be greeted at the end by groups of neo-Nazis, Minutemen, and angry retirees waving placards that read, “We Love Sheriff Joe.”
ARPAIO HAD NO more enthusiastic immigration-enforcer than Deputy Charley Armendariz. Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1973, Armendariz referred to himself as Mexican. Spanish was his first language, and his folks still buried their dead in the family plot in Juaréz. Armendariz graduated from high school in El Paso and served in the Navy. After his discharge, he joined the Austin Police Department. He moved to Phoenix in 2004 to take care of his mother, who had cancer. Armendariz admired Sheriff Arpaio and liked the way he left officers alone to do their jobs. He became a deputy in 2005.
Armendariz, who was also openly gay, displayed a strong drive to prove himself. Starting in 2007, under Maricopa County’s partnership with the federal government, he was trained by ICE as an immigration enforcer. He participated regularly in large-scale “saturation patrols” that would stop vehicles with broken taillights or other minor infractions and check the immigration status of drivers and passengers. If it bothered Armendariz to arrest unauthorized Mexican migrants, or to stop and detain citizens who looked like him, he didn’t show it. More than 70 percent of the people he stopped were Latinos, although Latinos made up only 30 percent of Maricopa County’s population.
On March 28, 2008, Armendariz par- ticipated in a saturation patrol that would later come to be emblematic of the sheriff’s style of policing. The patrol targeted an area of north Phoenix frequented by day laborers. Armendariz pulled over a car with a broken taillight. When the car stopped in a Quick Stop convenience store parking lot, the deputy, with no provocation, handcuffed the Anglo driver after determining he had a suspended license. Armendariz put him in his patrol car. Then—just to be safe, he would later say—he handcuffed the Latino passenger, too, and had him sit on the front bumper of the patrol car while he checked his immigration status.
Just then, Velia Meraz and her brother Manuel Nieto Jr., both U.S. citizens, pulled into the Quick Stop parking lot. They yelled out to the cuffed passenger: “¡No diga nada! ¡Pidale un abogado!” (“Don’t say anything! Ask for a lawyer!”) For reasons he could never fully explain, Armendariz felt threatened by the siblings. He later testified, confusingly, that he feared for his life because he’d heard protesters yelling exactly the same thing at saturation-patrol command posts when arrested immigrants were hauled in. He somehow decided that the siblings must have guns, though he saw no weapons. Panicked, Armendariz called for backup, inventing a story about the siblings trying to run him over as they drove off.
A deputy on a motorcycle chased Meraz and Nieto and stopped them as they pulled into their father’s nearby auto shop. Nieto, busy dialing 911, refused to roll down his window. But then another deputy roared onto the scene in his patrol car, lights flashing. This deputy pointed his gun at Nieto, who then allowed himself to be pulled out of the car and handcuffed. After his identity checked out, Nieto was released with no charges. So was Meraz and, eventually, the Latino passenger of the car Armendariz had originally pulled over.
For a while, the incident sank into obscurity. Armendariz was not disciplined. But Meraz and Nieto couldn’t forget it. They joined a federal class-action lawsuit that had been filed the previous year under the name of the lead plaintiff, Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, a Mexican citizen with a legal visa who claimed his constitutional rights were violated when he was detained by Arpaio’s deputies during a traffic stop in an area frequented by day laborers. Melendres v. Arpaio would prove to be the stiffest legal test to Arpaio’s regime. But it wouldn’t be decided for another four years.
IN JULY 2009, Arpaio was profiled in The New Yorker. It was one more sign that after 16 years in the sheriff’s office, he had achieved true fame. “I have elevated the role of sheriff all over the world,” he told me at the time. “Nobody knew what a sheriff was.” But that October, for the first time, the considerable enforcement powers he’d accrued began to be reined in. Arpaio’s onetime political ally, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, revoked his officers’ federal authority to enforce immigration on the streets of Phoenix. (For two more years, the Obama administration did continue to allow Arpaio to screen inmates for immigration status.)
Arpaio responded by defiantly an– nouncing that all 900 of his deputies would still enforce immigration laws on the streets. Behind the scenes, his office came up with a dubious legal justification for continuing to enforce federal immigration law.
But the blowback against his enforcement schemes was building. Journalists, mayors, police chiefs, moderate Republicans, Latino politicians, and immigrant-rights advocates complained about a sheriff’s department that violated civil rights and neglected routine police duties. A small newspaper in Maricopa County, the East Valley Tribune, won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting on Arpaio’s diversion of resources and manpower from key policing duties in order to fund the immigration-enforcement machine. The sheriff’s department, the Tribune found, had failed to investigate hundreds of sex-crime cases. The sheriff was forced to apologize publicly. Arpaio said his people would reinvestigate the cases, but many leads had turned cold. Years later, he told me the sex-crime scandal was “invented” by his enemies.
rritated by the outcry, Arpaio made what would turn out to be one of the biggest mistakes of his career: He and Thomas, the county attorney, initiated investigations of their highest-profile critics. Some, including my former boss Mike Lacey, a founder of the local alternative weekly New Times and co-owner of Village Voice Media, were falsely arrested. Others were falsely indicted. No convictions resulted. Instead, Thomas and Arpaio would end up being successfully sued by some of their targets for civil-rights violations; the Justice Department would investigate Arpaio for abuse of power; and Thomas would be disbarred for malicious prosecution.
While Arpaio battled his detractors, his officers continued to enforce his interpretation of Arizona’s immigration laws. But those laws were increasingly facing constitutional challenges. In the vacuum left by Congress’s failure to fix the national system, the federal courts began to step in and initiate their own version of immigration reform.
The fundamental questions had been forced by Arpaio and his allies: Did states have the right to enforce immigration laws? Did local immigration enforcers violate the constitutional rights of those they stopped, detained, or arrested on immigration charges?
The first big decision gave Arpaio no grief. In 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld portions of the employer-sanctions law, ruling that Arizona had a right to discipline businesses that hired unauthorized workers. The part of the law that Arpaio used to round up immigrants in workplaces had not been challenged.
Then, in 2012, the Supreme Court struck down three of four provisions of SB 1070, Arizona’s “Show Me Your Papers” law, which five other states had copycatted. The justices did leave intact the provision that required cops to check the immigration status of those they stopped, detained, or arrested if they suspected them of being undocumented immigrants. But there was a constitutional catch: Officers could not “unreasonably detain” people they’d stopped just to check their immigration status. Practically speaking, that meant most people who were stopped would likely be released before their immigration status could be determined.
Arpaio vowed his department would continue relying on the employer-sanctions law to raid businesses and round up unauthorized immigrant workers. Now it was on to Melendres; the trial was slated for that summer. Presiding would be a shrewd, conservative federal District Court judge named Murray Snow. The trial would last several days. Since there would be no jury, Arpaio’s fate would rest with the judge.
ON THE OVEN-HOT morning of July 24, 2012, there wasn’t an empty seat in Judge Snow’s courtroom as Arpaio walked slowly, carefully, to the witness stand. Dressed in his usual nonuniform attire—brown suit, crisp white shirt, maroon tie with a gold, pistol-shaped tie clip—he sat down, folded his hands in front of him, and glanced around the oval courtroom. Most of the faces staring back at him were Latino.
Snow, a balding, bespectacled man with protruding ears, sat poker-faced, waiting for the testimony to begin. A former high school football star and a devout member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, he was nominated to the federal bench in 2007, the same year Arpaio had begun his immigration raids. Snow had already taken some action to rein in Arpaio, issuing sanctions for destroying documents relevant to the Melendres case and putting a stop to the long-standing practice of detaining undocumented immigrants just because they had no papers, not because they’d committed crimes. Contrary to Arpaio’s interpretation of federal law, Snow had ruled that having no papers was not a crime but a civil violation.
The nine-member team of plaintiffs’ attorneys—including pro bono lawyers from the multinational firm Covington & Burling, the ACLU, and the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund—evoked a visual metaphor for the nation’s changing demographics. Some were children of immigrants. Across the aisle, Arpaio’s defense team consisted of three white, male attorneys, the best-known being Tom Liddy, a former Republican congressional candidate who is the son of Watergate conspirator G. Gordon Liddy.
The defense claimed the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office had not engaged in racial profiling. The plaintiffs’ lawyers had come armed with two thick black-vinyl binders of evidence to the contrary. The hundreds of pages contained the sheriff’s own press releases trumpeting immigration sweeps; in-house deputy emails containing denigrating jokes about Mexicans (a “rare photo of a Mexican Navy Seal” showed a Chihuahua in scuba gear); and passages from the sheriff’s book Joe’s Law that cast aspersions on Mexican immigrants. (Arpaio blamed his coauthor, testifying that he never reads his own books.)
Equally damning were reams of constituent emails, phone messages, and letters praising Arpaio’s crackdowns and requesting sweeps to rid particular neighborhoods of “illegals.” The letters read like a catalog of white residents’ resentments and fears. They were crucial to the case: The plaintiffs alleged that Arpaio, who had copies of the letters, passed them along to his underlings, who then set up race-based traffic stops in many of the areas constituents requested. The communiqués were displayed on large screens in the courtroom, and Arpaio was asked to comment on them:
“Just today at the grocery store, I was checking out when I noticed a mexican [sic] lady standing mindlessly at the end of the belt. She expectantly asked me, ‘Hablo [sic] Espanol?’ This is becoming a most annoying occurrence and it is not ceasing to stop. … I humbly beseech you to return to Mesa and help liberate this city of the illegals that swarm the street.”
“I would love to see an immigrant sweep conducted in Surprise, especially—or specifically at the intersection of Grand and Greenway. The area contains dozens of day workers attempting to flag down motorists seven days a week.”
“Lastly, we would like to know why the Mexicans are allowed to park on the corner of 99th and Broadway peddling their old corn, peanuts, et cetera.”
“All of a sudden a large amount of these Mexicans swarmed around my car, and I was so scared and alarmed and the only alternative I had was to manually direct them away from my car.”
Arpaio steadfastly denied that any raids were set up to mollify constituents, although he acknowledged that he sent thank-you notes to the letter-writers. Racial profiling, he said, was “immoral and illegal.”
Sometimes, as his daylong testimony wore on, the sheriff absently twiddled his thumbs. Mostly he sat still as a statue, answering questions with a flat affect. Occasionally, he asked the questioning attorney, Stanley Young, to repeat himself, because he couldn’t hear.
Young persisted, at one point asking: “Do you have any regrets about things that you have done in the area of illegal immi-gration such that if you could start over again you would do things differently the second time?”
Arpaio: “Well, you—no one is ever perfect, but in general terms we’ve done a good job, been well trained, and I stand by that.”
Young: “So you don’t know of anything that you would do differently if you had the chance to do it, is that right?”
Arpaio: “Not right now.”
As Arpaio left Snow’s courtroom, he appeared unfazed. He stopped to rib a local reporter, then disappeared with an entourage of lawyers and staffers into the elevator. Outside, anti-Arpaio protests had swelled in size as the day wore on. The demonstrators chanted: “¡Aquí estamos! ¡Y no nos vamos! ¡Y si nos echan, regresamos! (“We’re here! We won’t leave! And if they kick us out, we’ll return!”) But Arpaio, usually spoiling for a TV-friendly confrontation, was not in the mood to engage them.
Now he had an election to worry about. Arpaio was facing his first serious reelection challenge. Despite the legal tangles, he threw himself into the campaign with vigor. He hit upon a brilliant political move: investigating Obama’s birth certificate. It worked like a charm; a new flood of media coverage distracted voters from his legal troubles and further cemented his status as a national tea-party celebrity. Arpaio vastly outspent his opponent and won his sixth term. But the 6 percentage-point victory margin was the closest since his first election.
THE YEAR 2013 had already begun badly. Arpaio had fallen on his way to lunch one day, breaking his shoulder and spurring more whispers that he’d gotten too old and frail for the job. The national media, aside from Fox News, had lost interest. A federal judge in Phoenix—not Snow—had slapped down the Arpaio-Thomas interpretation of the human-smuggling law, prohibiting Arpaio from charging migrants with a felony because they’d conspired to smuggle themselves into Arizona. But the biggest wallop was yet to come.
On May 24, 2013, 10 months after the sheriff’s testimony, Judge Snow ruled in a 142-page document that Arpaio and his agency had indeed engaged in unconstitutional policing and had racially profiled Latinos. They’d violated the Fourth Amendment by detaining Latinos for no legal reason, Snow said; they’d violated the 14th Amendment by targeting the same population for traffic stops. Arpaio and his agency, the judge made clear, had “no accurate legal basis” for enforcing immigration.
The ruling was devastatingly comprehensive, demolishing almost every enforcement tactic that Arpaio had employed. But the sheriff refused to admit Snow had hog-tied him. He blamed ICE for improperly training his deputies by telling them they could use ethnicity and race as factors when deciding who could be stopped and checked for being in the country without papers.
Judge Snow had accepted that excuse in his ruling—but only to a point. ICE, he said, had wrongly trained Arpaio’s officers that “they could consider race and Mexican ancestry as one factor among others in making law-enforcement decisions during immigration enforcement operations without violating the legal requirements pertaining to racial bias in policing.” But Snow also pointed out that an ICE agent had testified he would “definitely be concerned if traffic stops were being used as pretext” to investigate immigration status.
Arpaio swore he wouldn’t stand down. He would continue using his one remaining tool: charging undocumented immigrants with felonies under the employer-sanctions law. Snow wasn’t finished, though. In October 2013, the judge filed a 59-page list of reforms that Arpaio’s department was required to institute, including new policies and training for “bias-free” policing, improved record-keeping, and making audio-video recordings of all traffic stops. The judge embedded a monitor in the sheriff’s office to make sure his orders were carried out and to report back to the court. The once-mighty sheriff now had a minder.
At a deputy meeting following Snow’s ruling, Arpaio contradicted the judge’s findings and denied that the department had racially profiled. His chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, said every lawyer he’d spoken with had indicated that Snow was violating the Constitution. Snow’s rulings, Sheridan said, were “ludicrous.” They were “crap.”
Either Sheridan and Arpaio didn’t know, or didn’t care, that they were being videotaped. Six months later, on March 24 of this year, Judge Snow, after reviewing the video, called Arpaio and Sheridan back to court and lectured them about mischaracterizing the court’s findings and “sending mixed messages to those deputies about whose orders they have to comply with”—his or Arpaio’s.
Subsequently, in a written order, Snow required all sheriff’s office personnel to read a summary of his ruling and sign to affirm that they’d read it. (The Constitution gave Arpaio a First Amendment out; as an elected official, he couldn’t be made to sign something he disagreed with. The rest of the department complied.)
Shortly after, in mid-April, I visited Arpaio in his office. He’s known to have a sharp temper, and although I couldn’t make out what he was saying, I heard him yell at staffers as I sat in the waiting room. A few minutes later, when I was ushered in, he was composed. But he wouldn’t talk about Snow, or the case. “The only thing I will say is this: I run this office. I’m the elected constitutional sheriff, and we are appealing. That’s it.”
There is an important detail that he doesn’t mention about the appeal: It never denies that racial profiling occurred in the saturation patrols; it only asserts that it was less widespread than the judge found.
Arpaio’s new headquarters, where he relocated in late 2013, sits on the top floor of the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, a concrete-and-glass structure in central Phoenix that’s shaped like an inverted triangle. From his desk, he can peer out the window at a sprawling gray industrial area. Framed profiles from national newspapers and magazines, dating from the height of his notoriety, line the nearby wall.
“All I did was work, work, work, work,” he said, looking at another wall lined with his badges and DEA credentials. “That’s the way I am. That’s my character. I always work hard. I am not a—I don’t have all these degrees and all this stuff, I just work hard. And that proves that if you work hard in this country, you can be anything you want to be.”
For two decades, Arpaio had played the role of the hero he created, America’s Toughest Sheriff. What happens when the character is no longer so compelling, so convincing? It must have been painful, I suggested, when the courts started cutting off his enforcement power. But Arpaio isn’t much for self-reflection. “As far as strictly enforcing the illegal immigration, just being here illegally, yeah, we don’t do that anymore. … I’m not certified by the federal government, which we were when we were doing this.” (Snow had ruled, to the contrary, that Arpaio kept enforcing immigration long after the feds had pulled out.) But he could still “arrest people working with fake identification,” he pointed out. And “if all of them happen to be in the country illegally,” he said, “that’s not the main issue. The main issue is they violated state laws.”
By now, his anti-immigrant comrades had met their downfall. County Attorney Thomas had been disbarred. Russell Pearce, who pushed the immigration laws through the Arizona Legislature, had lost a recall election. Arpaio took it as a badge of honor that he was the only one still standing. “I sleep at night,” he told me.
But his survival didn’t come cheap. To date, Maricopa County taxpayers have paid a total of $86.7 million to settle legal claims associated with the sheriff, including payouts for wrongful jail deaths and multiple abuse-of-power claims. The defense and implementation of Judge Snow’s orders in the Melendres case will run another $23.6 million. So how about those mounting legal expenses? Don’t blame Arpaio, he says; he didn’t file the lawsuits.
THE DAY AFTER our interview, I joined Arpaio aboard a Southwest Airlines flight, bound for the Hollywood screening of a documentary called The Joe Show. The sheriff sat in the front row so he could have leg room. Phoenix filmmaker Randy Murray sat several rows back. He spent 10 years making the documentary, which focuses on Arpaio’s symbiotic relationship with the press. “People like Sheriff Arpaio and [Toronto Mayor] Rob Ford get press because they’re clowns on TV,” Murray had told me a few days before. “Not because they have solutions, because they cause problems.” Murray, a lifelong liberal, said he’d found Arpaio to be harder to dislike than he’d expected, a “lovable, funny man who says he really cares about protecting the public, and the irony is, he doesn’t protect the public.”
Murray had shown the documentary to Arpaio at a private screening, and recalled the sheriff was “furious.” But after the film was shown at a Phoenix film festival and written up in the local newspaper, Murray said Arpaio called back and volunteered to help promote the movie. Any publicity, in the sheriff’s world, is good publicity.
On the airplane, Arpaio was still a celebrity. “Sheriff Joe, thank you for what you do,” one man said. “We’ve got your back.” A flight attendant made a heart sign with her fingers. At the Bob Hope Airport in Burbank, the sheriff was stopped five times by fans. “Sheriff Joe, you rock,” said a woman with a horseshoe tattoo on her foot. A man from Washington state clasped Arpaio’s hand: “God bless you, Sheriff Joe. Everybody in eastern Washington loves you.”
When we arrived, he had difficulty stepping up into the waiting van. Once inside, he noted, out of the blue, that some Mexican restaurants serve “Wop Salad.” Why, he wanted to know, didn’t the feds go after people who use the word “Wop”?
The van pulled up in front of the old Grauman’s Chinese Theatre in Hollywood, where the screening would take place in a couple of hours. “This is a crappy neighborhood,” Arpaio declared after stepping out of the van. He traipsed on stars’ names embedded in the sidewalk. Nearby, two actors dressed as Elmo and Cookie Monster were posing with tourists for photos and tips. When they recognized the sheriff, they took pictures with him. Then an actor in a Wonder Woman costume came up and wrapped a thin rope around the sheriff’s chest. Arpaio seemed at first bewildered and angry. Then he got his bearings. It was all a gag, he realized. “She’s just trying to make a buck,” he said.
After a bowl of pea soup with saltine crackers at a nearby restaurant, Arpaio took the escalator back down to the sidewalk in front of the theater—he can’t do stairs anymore—and gave brief interviews to a couple of Los Angeles reporters. Two tourists from Ecuador recognized Arpaio and asked for a photo just before an American Latina passed by and said loudly to her friends, “That’s Arpaio! He hates Latin people. He hates Hispanics. I know about him from the news.”
The sheriff didn’t hear. He folded his hands behind his back and seemed to be waiting to be recognized by other passersby. It had been a waste of time, he told me, coming all this way. He’d expected big crowds of angry demonstrators, and he’d planned on confronting them. Instead, after posing for a Spanish-language network in front of Frank Sinatra’s star, he made his way into the theater, where the documentary was about to begin, two flights of stairs up. His public-information officer scrambled and found an elevator for the sheriff, just in time.
In the darkened theater, Arpaio put one foot carefully in front of the other, making sure not to tumble and break that shoulder again. The place was pretty much empty; only about 35 people had shown up, including two fans from Phoenix wearing “God Bless Sheriff Joe” sweatshirts. Chin in hand, Arpaio rewatched The Joe Show. A couple of times, he made comments in his own defense, but mainly he just sat stone-faced. Most of Murray’s film was “garbage,” he told me after it ended.
SEVERAL DAYS AFTER the screening, Charley Armendariz, the overzealous deputy who’d harassed the Latinos at the Quick Stop, had a nervous breakdown.
In an apparent cloud of paranoia, Armendariz called 911 from his small tract home in west Phoenix. He said there might be a burglar in his garage. When police officers responded to his call, he asked them to check a large box on a garage shelf to see if anyone was hiding inside. The cops didn’t find anyone, but instead discovered drugs and a mishmash of sheriff’s-office files. A subsequent search warrant turned up a bewildering stash of drugs and documents. Meth, pot, LSD, heroin, cocaine. Credit cards, Social Security cards, Mexican consular cards, and voting cards, Arizona driver’s licenses, Mexican driver’s licenses, Mexican pesos, passports. Fifty license plates. A sawed-off shotgun.
Armendariz had been a key defense witness for Arpaio, but his lengthy testimony had ultimately provided fodder for Judge Snow’s finding that the department had practiced racial profiling. “The court concludes that Deputy Armendariz considered race as one factor among others in making law enforcement decisions,” the judge wrote in his ruling. Now he was arrested and charged with weapons and drug violations. He told sheriff’s investigators that other members of the department were corrupt, that he was innocent. A few days later, after his release, he barricaded himself in his house for nine hours in a standoff with police. This time, they took him to a psychiatric facility. He returned home and, days later, hanged himself. Arpaio’s office was back in the headlines, in the worst possible way.
When we spoke not long after Armendariz’s suicide, Arpaio insisted that his deputy’s misdeeds were not the product of his department’s policies. “This is a unique situation,” he said, “where you have a deputy who started doing things on his own.”
As always, Arpaio said he was soldiering on, undaunted. He had “the ID theft,” as he called it, to work with. The other rulings? Well, he was appealing. He trusted the courts. They would do the right thing.
And what if they don’t? I asked. What if you have every last bit of immigration authority taken away? “OK, if they win, I’ll go back to arresting hookers on Van Buren Street like I started my career on,” he said. “I got a lot of things to do, believe me. Illegal immigration isn’t my top priority. It never really has been. I’ve been outspoken, and we had authority to enforce the laws. And we did a pretty good job. In fact, the job was too good. That’s why they investigated me and took away my authority, which is sad. And what’s really sad, no one wants to do anything about it.”
ONE AFTERNOON IN mid-June, Carlos and Sandra Figueroa and their 14-year-old daughter, Kathy, joined a group of about 35 Latinos who gathered outside Arpaio’s headquarters to hand-deliver yet another class-action lawsuit to the sheriff. This constitutional challenge, filed in federal court earlier that day by a minister, a human-rights group, and two undocumented immigrants convicted of identity theft after a workplace raid, aimed to destroy the last remaining weapon in the sheriff’s immigration-enforcement arsenal—his power to charge undocumented workers with felonies under the Employer Sanctions Law.
The Figueroas knew firsthand the trauma Arpaio’s workplace raids caused. In 2009, Arpaio’s deputies arrested Carlos and Sandra, both undocumented immigrants from Mexico, during a raid of a Phoenix car wash. Kathy, who was then 9 and is a U.S. citizen by birth, happened to be flipping through TV channels at her babysitter’s house when she came upon her parents on the screen, hands fastened with zip-ties, being led away by deputies. At a time when national debate was raging over Arpaio’s practices, the story of the little girl watching her parents get arrested on television became a meme on cable news and the Internet.
The Figueroas were charged with identity theft because they’d used fake Social Security numbers to get jobs. They were also charged with forgery.
Ultimately, unlike many of the 800 or so others who were nabbed in Maricopa County’s workplace raids and deported, the couple prevailed. Desperate to avoid deportation, they managed to beat Arpaio’s system by hiring competent attorneys and running up a legal debt they say has reached $30,000. The Figueroas plea-bargained the identity theft and forgery charges down to criminal impersonation, a lesser felony they say will eventually become a misdemeanor on their records. As undocumented immigrants, they were unable to obtain bail, and wound up serving three unpleasant (two meals a day, a thousand-dollar phone bill for calls to Kathy) months in the sheriff’s jails before they returned home to their traumatized daughter, who’d been living with her aunt.
After fending off deportation in immigration court for four years, Carlos said, they were finally granted renewable work papers that allow them to live without fear in the United States, where they’ve been for 17 years. Absent immigration reform, they can’t qualify for green cards, so they remain in a sort of immigration limbo with their renewable papers.
The years since he and his wife were caught up in the Arpaio raid have been a mixture of “hell and hope,” Carlos told me. I asked him what he thought of Arpaio. He said he wouldn’t “dignify” the sheriff by thinking about him. “I focus on the family”—the Figueroas now have two daughters—”on my daughters’ educations, on their getting ahead. That, and justice for my Hispanic community, is what I think about,” he said.
Arpaio never came out to accept his copy of the lawsuit. After the litigants dispersed, he ventured downstairs. His publicist had arranged for him to be presented an award by an obscure group of citizen crime-fighters, just in case there were any TV cameras around. Of course, there were. But the more-seasoned local reporters had long since grown cynical about Arpaio’s staged photo ops. Instead, they asked him to explain how using a fictitious identity that belongs to no one could amount to an aggravated felony.
He looked tired. The last few years of legal and media battles had taken their toll. But he could still fend off reporters when they got too nosy. Arpaio refused to respond to the “legal points” of the new lawsuit, saying only that he would fight it. Just like he was appealing Judge Snow’s ruling in Melendres. Just like he was fighting a major Justice Department lawsuit now slowly progressing toward a trial in federal court. Just like he’d been brushing off determined enemies throughout his career. “I seem to be the target,” he said, rolling his eyes at the jaundiced reporters. “It’s always Arpaio, Arpaio.”