One Sheriff Sees Immigration Answer as Simple

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, right, talks to members of a 250-member posse who will help find illegal immigrants.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, right, talks to members of a 250-member posse who will help find illegal immigrants. (Roy Dabner - AP)
By John Pomfret and Sonya Geis
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, May 20, 2006

PHOENIX -- Sheriff Joe Arpaio thinks he has found the answer to the problem of illegal immigrants in the United States. It's not the National Guard. And it's not amnesty. "Fuhgeddaboudit!" growled Arpaio, his Boston accent unbleached by the desert sun. The sheriff's solution: Lock 'em up.

Since March, Arpaio, a Republican who refers to himself as "America's toughest sheriff," has directed the 3,000 men and women in the nation's third-largest sheriff's department to arrest undocumented workers. As of Thursday, his deputies and a posse of several hundred volunteers had captured 170 -- in a region where an estimated one in 10 workers is illegal.

"My message to the illegals is this: Stay out of Maricopa County, because I'm the sheriff here," Arpaio said in an interview in his office on the 19th floor of a building in downtown Phoenix.

Arpaio decided to go after illegal immigrants in this county of 3.6 million people after the county attorney issued an interpretation of a new state anti-smuggling law that said illegal immigrants could be arrested if they were party to a deal to smuggle themselves into the United States. Punishment could be up to two years in jail. The county attorney's legal opinion is being challenged in court.

More people sneak into Arizona from Mexico than any other state in the nation. More people die in its deserts. More people commit crimes along its border. And among many Arizonans, Arpaio's brand of frontier justice provides a quick fix and a clear counterpoint to a federal enforcement campaign that, since 1993, has failed, despite a tripling of Border Patrol agents, to decrease illegal entries along the Mexican border.

"We should have done this years ago," Arpaio said.

The sheriff's campaign in Maricopa County is among the toughest approaches by state and local law enforcement to addressing the estimated 11 million undocumented workers in the United States.

In the first four months of this year, 43 states introduced 461 bills involving immigration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, with many concentrated on law enforcement.

Law enforcement is split over whether local police and sheriff's departments should be wading into the immigration issue, according to Gene Voegtlin, legislative counsel for the International Association of Chiefs of Police, based in Alexandria. Some departments follow Arpaio's philosophy. Others, such as the police departments in the District, Baltimore, Prince George's County and Los Angeles, generally prohibit officers from asking about immigration or enforcing immigration laws.

Los Angeles Assistant Police Chief George Gascon said local and state law enforcement officers should avoid becoming agents of the federal immigration system because police depend on many different kinds of people, including illegal immigrants, to solve crimes. If undocumented workers fear that police will deport them, they will not come forward with tips and will not testify in court, he said.

"You will find that most of the people who are professional law enforcement officers who are not necessarily engaged in the electoral process understand the value of these types of policies," Gascon said.

Despite those concerns, since 2002 states have been able to enter into a memorandum of understanding with the Department of Homeland Security that allows training of local police to enforce immigration laws, including starting the deportation process for any illegal immigrants officers encounter during their normal activities, such as traffic stops. Florida was the first to train local officers, followed by Alabama, where state troopers now check the immigration status of everyone they stop. Voegtlin said that Florida's state troopers launched a public relations campaign to explain their plans to local immigrant communities and that "they haven't really witnessed a chilling effect with police."

In April, Gov. Sonny Perdue (R) signed a tough immigration bill that made Georgia the first state to require municipalities to require immigration enforcement training for their police. Police must check the immigration status of anyone arrested for a felony or drunken driving. The law also fines employers who hire illegal immigrants. Fourteen other states, including Virginia, are working on laws like Georgia's that would require local police training.

Arpaio's approach has struck a chord among those who want to curtail illegal immigration in Arizona.

A former D.C. police officer and federal narcotics agent, Arpaio first ran for sheriff in 1992 and since then has garnered attention for constructing a tent city jail housing 2,000 inmates in the desert, forcing prisoners to wear pink underwear and creating what he says is the world's only female chain gang. He has been reelected three times by substantial margins, and his campaign against illegal immigrants has garnered him reams of e-mails from fans.

"If you get caught by immigration, you get a free ride back to Mexico in an air-conditioned bus," Arpaio said. "A free ride? Not in my county. I'm going to put them on chain gangs, in tents and feed them bologna sandwiches."

Arpaio said he is eager to see the lawsuit challenging his enforcement program "go all the way to the Supreme Court." "I'm going to keep locking them up," he said. "This wasn't no one-day pony show."

Geis reported from Los Angeles.

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