In this May 10, 2012 photo, a defiant Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio pounds his fist on the podium during a news conference in Phoenix as he answers questions about the announcement by the Department of Justice of a federal civil lawsuit against him and his department.(AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin, File)
Self-billed “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” Maricopa County, Ariz.’s Joe Arpaio is toning down the toughness now that he’s on trial for violating the civil rights of Latinos for the last five years in his office’s crackdown on illegal immigration at the Arizona border. Arpaio took the stand in a Phoenix courtroom on Tuesday, July 24 and was confronted immediately by his own past racist statements.
Arpaio, known informally as “Sheriff Joe,” is accused by a class of Latinos – including legal immigrants and U.S. citizens – of racially profiling them in the “suppression patrols” run by the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department.
Flashpoint for Immigration Policies
According to statistics provided by the office, says the Huffington Post, undocumented immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by Arpaio’s office between January 2008 and October 2011. The plaintiffs want a declaration that the sheriff’s office racially profiled Latinos, and they are demanding policy changes.
The case has focused attention on the increasingly common practice of the federal government diverting its responsibility for policing illegal immigration and enforcing federal laws against it to the states.
The U.S. Supreme Court in June upheld, in part, Arizona’s 2010 immigration law, unanimously green-lighting its “show me your papers” provision that “requires state law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest if they have reason to suspect that the individual might be in the country illegally,” according to a New York Times article.
But the American Civil Liberties Union has called the law unconstitutional and vowed to continue fighting it and other similar state laws in Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah. “Upholding the rights of immigrants is important to us all,” says the ACLU on its website. “When the government has the power to deny legal rights and due process to one vulnerable group, everyone’s rights are at risk.”
Hey, Joe, Which Way Do You Go?
On Tuesday, Sheriff Joe’s past statement that his office was a “full-fledged federal immigration agency” came back to haunt him. Under questioning by Stanley Young, a lawyer for the six named plaintiffs, Arpaio tried to tone down that description, saying illegal immigration was only one of the crimes his office focused on.
He was also faced with his past statements about the Ku Klux Klan. According to the New York Times, Young cued up a television interview in which Arpaio said that being compared to the Ku Klux Klan was “an honor, it means you’re doing something.” But when questioned about it, Arpaio said on Tuesday that he had “no use for the KKK.”
Finally, Young read from Arpaio’s co-authored book ”Joe’s Law: America’s Toughest Sheriff Takes on Illegal Immigration, Drugs, and Everything Else that Threatens America,” the title of which does not bode well for a man who is now trying to tone down his tough stance on immigration. Passages in the book accuse Mexicans of trying to reconquer land in Arizona, California and Texas that was once theirs, and of keeping their customs clear of the American mainstream on purpose. “My co-author wrote that,” Arpaio flatly told Young.
Arpaio’s Twitter account – on which he actively took on critics including the comic George Lopez and local media outlet AZCentral – has fallen silent since the trial started.
The Phoenix New Times, was not impressed with Sheriff Joe’s performance in court, with reporter Ray Stern saying the sheriff looked like a “tired, old racist on the stand.” But Fox News gave airtime to Arpaio’s attempt to contextualize his statements calling illegal immigrants “dirty”: In court, Arpaio said that if someone crossed the border on foot over four days in the desert, that person “could be dirty. That’s the context on how I used that word.”
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