After a few minutes, he still hadn’t come over to our truck, so we both stepped out to see what was happening. The deputy got out of his car and yelled at us, furious. He demanded my driver’s license and Eva’s, even though she wasn’t driving. And he refused to answer my questions about why he’d pulled me over.
I had my suspicions, though. I was born in Chihuahua, Mexico, though I’ve been living legally in the United States since 1958 and have been a citizen since 1967. When we were stopped, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, led by Joe Arpaio, routinely engaged in racial profiling of Latinos in Phoenix and the surrounding area. After Arpaio refused to end discriminatory treatment of Latinos despite a federal court order that I and other victims had won, he was convicted of criminal contempt of court — which is what President Trump pardoned him for Friday night.
What happened to me and Eva that night eight years ago was all too typical: We were driving a pickup truck with landscaping tools, and we were Hispanic, so we got pulled over by an overzealous deputy working for a sheriff who never made any attempt to hide his contempt for immigrants.
The deputy asked me if I was carrying any drugs, weapons or bazookas. I told him I did not have any drugs or bazookas, but that I did have a gun in the truck, which I was legally permitted to carry. He ordered me to hand it over, which I did, and then he told me to step out and put my hands on the side of the truck and spread my legs.
“What’s going on?” I said.
“I’m going to search you,” he answered.
I asked him what he was searching me for.
“Drugs and weapons,” he told me.
I replied that I’d already told him I didn’t have any drugs and had already given him my gun, but he told me he was going to search me anyway.
Standing there in the street, he patted me down — my underarms, my torso, my legs, even my groin. My wife was watching the whole time. That was the most humiliating part: I couldn’t defend myself or her.
When the search was finished, I asked the deputy for the third time why he’d pulled us over. He said it was because he hadn’t been able to see the license plate on my truck. And then, finally, he let us go, with this warning: “Don’t think for a minute that this has anything to do with racial profiling.”
But that was exactly what it was. In all my time living in Phoenix, it was the first — and only — time where I felt I’d been pulled over just because of the color of my skin. The experience left Eva traumatized: She’d bring it up, often, out of nowhere, from that night until she died in January 2016.
Not long after we were stopped, I contacted the Arizona chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, and I joined their lawsuit against Arpaio — a lawsuit they had filed the year before we were pulled over. Three years later, in 2012, I finally had my chance to testify against Arpaio. Eva and I both worried that we were in danger from the sheriff, his men or his supporters in Arizona, though I never let her know I was almost as scared as she was. When we won the case in 2013, I was elated.
Arpaio never stopped his racist practices, though, which is why he was finally convicted of contempt.
I followed all the related cases closely. On election night last fall, I was so happy to see that the voters had finally rejected Arpaio. And again last month, when Arpaio was convicted, I felt as though we’d triumphed. My one regret was that Eva wasn’t there to share that victory.
That triumph, that elation, didn’t last long, because of Trump.
I trust in the judicial system, and I always will: I always trust the justice system of America. But I never thought the president would step all over it.
On Friday night, I got a text from a friend I used to work with, telling me the news of Arpaio’s pardon. Soon after that, my daughters called, then my sister, then another friend. I’m not an angry person, but Friday night, I was furious.
Arpaio built a culture in his department of discrimination and racism. By pardoning him, Trump is saying to the nation that it’s okay to insult another race or another culture. Instead of making America great, he’s making America a lot more divided, just as Arpaio did here in Phoenix.
The two of them both should look at their consciences and change their ways.