meUntil August 2017 it was supposed to be a time of celebration for Joe Arpaio. The former Maricopa County sheriff had just received Donald Trump’s first presidential pardon after being found guilty of contempt of court.
The pardon meant that Arpaio was spared a criminal sentence for a federal misdemeanor that could include up to six months in prison. At a family dinner at a local restaurant the night he received him, he could barely touch his linguine with seafood and squid – he was too busy answering congratulatory calls and inquiries from the media.
But Trump’s forgiveness failed to redeem Arpaio’s then-85-year-old political brand, who was once known as “America’s toughest sheriff,” nor would it help the president’s long-term popularity in Arizona. Arizona’s electorate was changing rapidly. The state’s extreme immigration laws and Arpaio’s style of enforcement – which in both cases, federal courts considered some aspects unconstitutional – inspired a popular and energetic resistance movement that was reshaping state policy.
Instead of having his reputation restored with Trump’s forgiveness, Arpaio was met with a violent reaction. “I have two new titles now,” said Arpaio weeks after being pardoned. “’The disgraced sheriff’, who is everywhere, ‘the disgraced sheriff’. And the other is ‘racist’. … I lost my title as ‘America’s toughest sheriff’. “
Elected sheriff of Maricopa County – which includes Phoenix and Arizona’s most populous county – in 1992, Arpaio was once one of the state’s most popular politicians.
He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father, Ciro Arpaio, an Italian citizen, immigrated to the United States in the 1920s, a time when many Americans saw Italian immigrants as crime-prone invaders, disease-spreaders, job-stealers, evasives and dark-skinned people.
As a child, Arpaio said, he accepted anti-immigrant provocations and pretended to ignore them. It was what you did at that time, he said.
The immigrant’s son grew up to be an unapologetic immigration advocate, applying the hard-line policies that a growing base of Republican voters in Arizona supported. His deputies helped deliver tens of thousands of immigrants to Ice for deportation. They arrested day laborers, invaded companies to arrest unauthorized immigrant workers who worked with false documents, and invaded neighborhoods where they arrested undocumented drivers and passengers found after stopping cars for minor traffic violations.
His tactics helped to create a vitriol atmosphere against Mexican immigrants in Maricopa County, not unlike the hatred of immigrants he experienced firsthand. Arpaio launched an immigration hotline in 2007 “for citizens to report illegal aliens”. The sheriff’s office records show that the change triggered a flood of hints.
County residents wanted Arpaio to investigate his immigrant neighbors and take a look at a local McDonald’s where the team was suspiciously speaking Spanish. One person who called an anonymous hotline expressed the desire to “shoot” a Mexican-born activist who was one of Arpaio’s vocal critics, “if I could get away with it.”
Arizona’s bitter immigration wars and Arpaio’s role in them helped his political brand – for a time. He had been re-elected for a fifth term, the last in 2012, when he was 80 years old. But his immigration stance led to his political downfall in the next electoral cycle.
In 2016, a grassroots movement led by Latinos who spent the previous decade protesting the sheriff’s immigration tactics, collecting evidence for lawsuits, enabling immigrant communities to know their rights and registering new voters, concentrated their energies on their biggest campaign voter mobilization yet. The young people, who grew up in fear that Arpaio’s deputies could deport their immigrant relatives, became voters and registered others.
At the same time, moderate Republicans, irritated by Arpaio’s rising legal fees and controversies, supported his Democratic opponent. Even when voters in Maricopa County helped Trump win the presidency, they rejected his longtime sheriff.
Meanwhile, Arpaio was facing a legal reaction. Over the years, Arpaio had ignored the order of a federal judge to ban his law enforcement agency from detaining undocumented immigrants who were not suspects or accused of crimes – and handing them over for deportation.
In 2016, the Obama administration’s justice department announced plans to sue Arpaio for contempt of court.
Trump’s forgiveness in 2017 provided relief and hope for a political revival. “He is loved in Arizona,” Trump told Arpaio reporters days after his pardon. “Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was treated very unfairly by the Obama administration, especially just before an election – an election he would have won. ”
It did not take long, however, for jurists, newspaper editorial boards and historians to write the rebuke, labeling the pardon of abuse of power, an offense liable to impeachment, unconstitutional, a whistle for white supremacists on the basis of Trump, clientelism or any combination of these.
“Trump’s forgiveness elevates Arpaio once again to the pantheon of those who see institutional racism as something that has made America great,” said an editorial in the Arizona Republic.
The same article called a federal judge’s guilty verdict against Arpaio “a dose of hard-won justice for a very extravagant sheriff who showed little respect for the constitution by making national news as an immigration hardline – and let real crimes go by without investigation “
The media reviewed years of negative coverage of Arpaio, including a federal class action opened a decade earlier, in which Latin drivers from Maricopa County showed that Arpaio’s immigration tactics violated their civil rights and resulted in racial discrimination.
In September 2017, it seemed that the controversy had left Arpaio surprised, irritated and perplexed.
“I’m not a racist,” he told us. “You know that. Everyone knows that.”
When Arpaio checked his email, he said he found a message that called him “Sicko. Sadistic. Depraved vile criminal ”and expressed cruel and violent desires. Another letter used anti-Italian slanders to refer to him as a “Piece of Shit Greaseball Dago” and referred to the author’s desire to one day “piss on that WOP grave”.
January 2018, Arpaio announced that he would run for a seat in the US Senate in that year’s elections. But he had lost his former loyal Republican base. He was third out of three candidates in the GOP primaries.
Even though Arpaio was sidelined in the 2018 election, his legacy continued to galvanize activists and voters. From 2014 to 2018, Latin American voter turnout in Arizona jumped from 32% to 49%. In those four years, some Latin activists who organized against the flood of extreme immigration laws in Arpaio and Arizona won seats as Democrats in the Arizona State House, eliminating the Republican majority. The Latin vote helped Democrat Kyrsten Sinema to defeat Republican Martha McSally for the Senate seat Arpaio wanted.
Some local organizers credited the increase in Latin participation in part to voters who saw Arpaio’s defeat two years earlier.
Alejandra Gomez, a Mexican-American activist from Living United for Change in Arizona who helped mobilize voters in 2016 and 2018, said that seeing Arpaio lose and an electoral initiative to raise the minimum wage helped to convince some voters for the first time in the electoral cycle following that the act of voting can make a difference.
“Every step of the way, we say that we are going to fight for our community. At that point – we really deliver, ”Gomez said.
That same momentum, Gomez predicted at the time, would spread to the next presidential cycle in 2020.
“We have demonstrated that it is possible to defeat someone like Arpaio, so it is also possible to defeat someone like Trump,” she said.
Even so, Arpaio’s political ambitions are not over. In 2020, he ran for his old job as a sheriff in the Republican primaries. He crossed the county on a campaign bus with a picture of him with Trump and the slogan, “Make Maricopa County safe again.” The race was tight, but again he lost.
Meanwhile, grassroots organizers who learned how to inspire voters in their fight against Arpaio have channeled their energy into mobilizing voters by heart.
Arizona voters, by a narrow margin, chose a Democrat for President only for the second time since 1952, helping to cement Joe Biden’s victory and Trump’s defeat. Democrat Mark Kelly won his running for a seat in the United States Senate.
Maria Castro, a 27-year-old Mexican-American activist who started registering new Latino voters in Maricopa County as a high school student in 2011, noted that the people whose doors she knocked on in 2020 were unusually eager to vote.
“This time, people said, ‘Yes, we are ready to get rid of Trump,'” said Castro. “I think that Arpaio’s defeat made it tangible that we can defeat the villains that haunt our dreams.”
Arpaio, now 88, may have missed his last three races, but he hopes that the same will not happen with the man he calls his hero, Trump. “I took a beating, went around and ran again,” said Arpaio. “So, I would like to see you run again.”
Jude Joffe-Block and Terry Greene Sterling are the authors of DRIVING WHILE BROWN: Sheriff Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance, a new book that tells the story of Arpaio’s rise and fall as sheriff of Arizona’s most populous county and determined Latin resistance. fought its unconstitutional policing. Driving While Brown is published by the University of California Press and will be available on April 20.