At his Aug. 22 rally in Phoenix, President Trump heaped praise on longtime ally and campaign surrogate Joe Arpaio, the embattled former sheriff from Arizona. While he didn’t announce a presidential pardon at the rally, he indicated he was ready to offer it. “So, was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” he asked the crowd to applause.
For many years, Trump and Arpaio shared a pet issue: the “birther” theory. Trump was a vocal proponent of it, until he abandoned it during the 2016 presidential campaign and then falsely blamed Hillary Clinton for starting the conspiracy. Arpaio and his volunteer “cold-case posse” perpetuated the conspiracy for six years until Arpaio was voted out of office in 2016.
As Trump made illegal immigration a key campaign issue, he once again found a willing ally in Arpaio, whose anti-immigrant practices catapulted him to national prominence. And now, Trump is considering a presidential pardon for the self-proclaimed “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” who faces six months of jail following a criminal conviction relating to his policing practices targeting Latinos.
Whether Arpaio has done more than any other local law enforcement to crack down on illegal immigration is Trump’s opinion, and not fact-checkable. But it’s important to look at the full context of Arpaio’s history of legal woes stemming from his illegal-immigration policies.
This is a complex saga. We’ll focus on the initial key moments in 2008, and then jump to the potential presidential pardon in 2017.
Arpaio and his supporters often dismiss the years-long federal investigations as a partisan witch hunt under Barack Obama, but the FBI’s probe began as early as 2008, at the end of the George W. Bush administration.
Arpaio, who became sheriff in 1993, quickly became known for his unorthodox practices, such as requiring inmates to wear pink underwear, work on chain gangs and live in an outdoors “Tent City” jail even during the scorching Phoenix summers. In the early 2000s, Arpaio shifted to take on illegal immigration, which raised his national profile.
But the new effort came at a cost. Arpaio’s deputies started arresting hundreds of illegal immigrants, after entering into a partnership with the Department of Homeland Security. The sheriff’s office blew through its budget on immigration efforts while violent crimes, including sex crimes, went uninvestigated. The office eventually reopened more than 400 sex crimes investigations from 2005 to 2008 — during which the agency built up its human-smuggling unit while its special-victims unit went disproportionately understaffed.
In 2008, as the recession hit and tensions intensified between Arpaio and local officials over how much local law enforcement should focus on illegal immigration, the county Board of Supervisors decided to cut Arpaio’s budget. This led to a series of political infighting and legal disputes within the county, which ultimately cost taxpayers more than $44 million.
Also in 2008, federal officials under Bush started investigating the sheriff’s office for potential civil rights violations. The investigation continued under Obama and then-Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr., who prioritized enforcement of civil rights laws. In 2011, the Justice Department concluded the sheriff’s office engaged in systemic racial profiling of Latinos. DHS then removed the immigration-enforcement authority for Arpaio’s agency.
With this context in mind, let’s fast-forward to 2017
In July 2017, Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt of court. This stems from a 2007 racial-profiling case, Melendres v. Arpaio, in which Hispanic plaintiffs alleged that sheriff’s deputies discriminated against Latinos in traffic stops.
In 2013, U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow found the sheriff’s office engaged in systemic racial profiling of Latinos in its anti-illegal-immigration efforts. Snow ordered the agency to stop detaining people solely because they were suspected of being undocumented.
But Arpaio resisted. He was charged with, then convicted of, criminal contempt of court for intentionally violating Snow’s order. Arpaio’s attorneys now are asking U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton for a new trial or to reconsider her verdict, arguing Arpaio was wrongfully denied a jury trial. Typically, a jury trial is not required when the defendant’s maximum sentence is six months in jail — which Arpaio faces at his October sentencing.
Arpaio has said he would accept Trump’s pardon. Jack Wilenchik, Arpaio’s attorney, said a presidential pardon is “a check on the system, and the right thing to do … Because the former president caused this problem [by revoking the Sheriff’s authority to enforce federal law], it is only fair that the current president fix it, with a pardon. And when the judge refused to allow a jury, she refused to let ordinary Americans speak. So now they have to speak, through their president.”
Maricopa County taxpayers are on the hook for nearly $70 million, specifically relating to this racial-profiling case. Even if Trump pardons Arpaio, taxpayers would still foot the bill.
“If you pardon that kind of conduct, if you forgive that behavior, you are acknowledging that racist conduct in law enforcement is worth the kind of mercy that underlies a pardon — and it’s not,” said Paul Charlton, former U.S. attorney in Arizona under the Bush administration. “And it’s an abuse of the president’s discretion. It’s an injustice, and speaks volumes about the president’s disregard for civil rights if this pardon takes place.”
As Arpaio gained national and even international notoriety over the years, local support waned. Arpaio faced his first serious challenger in 2012, when the vast majority of roughly $8 million raised by his campaign came from out-of-state donors. In 2016, Arpaio failed in his bid for a seventh consecutive term.
What role did Arpaio have on the flow of undocumented immigrants in the Phoenix metro area?
It’s unclear. But unauthorized populations tend to fluctuate based on economic trends on both sides of the border, rather than as a direct result of a single agency or law.
The flow of unauthorized people in Arizona mirrored national trends — peaking in 2007 before the Great Recession, then declining as the U.S. economy suffered, and further declining as Mexico’s economy boomed.
Data for metro areas are limited, but you can see this trend in state-level data for Arizona. (Maricopa County, which encompasses the Phoenix metro area, has the majority of the state’s seven million residents.) Even as Arpaio’s immigration efforts ramped up in the early 2000s, Arizona’s undocumented population increased, as did the nation’s.
The Pinocchio Test
Whether you view Arpaio’s policies as a success is based on your view on illegal immigration, and how far an elected law enforcement official will push legal boundaries for the issues they value. But as we’ve chronicled, Arpaio has had a decade-long history of legal woes stemming from his policing policies on illegal immigration, and a federal judge found his sheriff’s office had engaged in systemic racial profiling of Latinos.
Trump is sympathetic to his political ally, and is mulling a presidential pardon. But the public should view his praise of Arpaio’s work on illegal immigration with a healthy dose of skepticism.
After all, Arpaio’s agency employed systemic racism in the name of immigration enforcement, targeting Latino drivers and detaining them solely based on a suspicion that the driver may be in the United States illegally. He willfully rejected the order to stop these tactics, and is now convicted of criminal contempt. He was voted out of office, but left behind a controversial legacy at the cost of county taxpayers, who are now left with a legal bill of dozens of millions of dollars. We won’t rate Trump’s claims because they are vaguely worded and based in opinion, but they certainly should not be taken at face value.
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