As Arizona primary voters go to the polls today, Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s full-throated endorsement of Donald Trump for president last weekend will be ringing in their ears.
Speaking at a rally outside Phoenix Saturday, the 83-year old Maricopa County sheriff told the crowd that Trump will ‘do things different.”
No two men, in fact, fit better together this election year. I once spent an evening at a banquet hall watching and speaking with Arpaio—an evening I think will tell you all you need to know about him; and how his approach to undocumented immigration created the template for most of Trump’s current campaign.
The banquet took place in 2008; but the concerns about criminalization of immigration currently enveloping the nation this election year were the same that enveloped that evening eight years ago.
I was on assignment for Playboy magazine, focusing on the resistance to undocumented immigrants which “Sheriff Joe” had made into a cause celebre---and propelled him into the national spotlight. In the process, he radically extended local police power into an area historically reserved for federal immigration agents.
Using a specially trained 160-officer immigration squad and “volunteer posses,” Arpaio so intently and demagogically targeted those who had crossed Arizona’s border with Mexico illegally, that the federal justice department, successfully launched a suit against him for racial profiling during “saturation” traffic stops. Raids of homes and workplaces also became widespread.
Arresting individuals on the slightest suspicion they might be illegal became his signature approach, and that included stopping motorists for minor or spurious infractions based on appearance or accent.
Arpaio and Trump are great mutual admirers. And for good reason; Prior to Arpaio’s raids and searches, residing in the U.S. illegally had been handled as a civil violation. But Arpaio’s law enforcement strategies have been key to the emergence of nationwide support for criminalizing people who violate. U.S. immigration laws.
Those strategies appear to have fueled Trump’s own “build a wall” approach to immigration—perhaps one reason why some unconfirmed reports claim Arpaio could be appointed attorney general in a Trump Administration.
But back to the dinner: The event was the “Annual Lincoln Day Republican Dinner;” the venue was the Nautical Inn in Lake Havasu City—a Colorado River boating and party town on a man-made lake in the otherwise godforsaken Mojave Dessert.
Joe Arpaio stood at the podium, looking out at a well-lubricated, 375-strong dinner crowd. Dressed in a navy-blue suit and a burgundy tie with a gold .45 handgun tie-pin, he looked far more like an unassuming retired book keeper than the controversial sheriff he’d already become.
By that night in 2008, Arizona had already become ground-zero for opposition to undocumented immigrants. The state registered the largest number of intercepted border crossings, with a work force of whom an estimated 10 percent were undocumented laborers---and a huge block of angry white voters demanding the border be immediately sealed and the ‘illegal’ workers rounded up and sent home.
That year, the precursor to Trump’s “beautiful wall”—a 670-mile, rust-colored border wall, stretching from Calexico in California all the way to Douglas, Arizona—was also just reaching completion. It featured 1,800 high-tech, 100-foot-tall border towers, at a cost of $2 billion. (The wall Trump is proposing, according to Trump, would cost $14 billion to build—and would, he said later, be paid for by Mexico.)
Arpaio began his speech by feeding his audience what they’d come to hear: How he forced the county’s 10,000 jail inmates to wear pink underwear as a tool of humiliation; how he lowered the cost of feeding jail inmates to just 18 cents per prisoner per day by serving them only two daily meals, mainly consisting of green, oxidized baloney sandwiches – a cost which he proudly contrasts with the $1-a-day allocated to feed a dog at the county’s pound.
Next he moved on to his creation of “the only female chain gang in the history of the world.”
You know the Super Bowl,” he told the audience. “I put all of the chain gangs in front of the Super Bowl, and always make sure there’s trash there that they have to pick up. Especially the ones with a DUI, I put big signs on their pink shirts, ‘I’m a drunken driver.’ (Now) we’re going to form a new chain gang with signs that say ‘I’m a drug user.’”
Next, Arpaio moved on to his tent-city jail: “In August, 1992—eight months after I took office— we got Korean War tents, and [put them up] in some free land next to a dump. Now we have a whole tent-city jail. I had a New Zealand [reporter] following me around, who wanted to see the tents.
“So I took him, and it was 148 degrees [in one of the tents.] The guy from New Zealand said, ‘I can’t believe this.’…I said our men and women are fighting for our country and they’re living in tents in Iraq and Afghanistan and have all this gear on, it’s not nice living in those foreign countries.”
Applause drowned him out, as he added, “And that [argument] shuts everybody’s mouth up.”
“Why don’t you put up tents out there on the [river] barges?” someone shouts out from the audience, to more even more raucous applause.
I realize now that what I was witnessing was the vanguard of America’s current anti-immigrant crusade: seething, white people – most from the America of a half-century ago—feeling screwed, scared and bewildered that the rest of their increasingly brown, black and mixed-race country doesn’t see the world the way they do.
They had lived through the Cold War, hippies, racial riots, “welfare queens” and the debacle of Vietnam. And now, they were looking at Arab terrorists, gay grandchildren, another debacle in Iraq, stagnant wages, and all those Mexican “hordes” streaming across their border, for the dubious privilege of doing mule-work in the USA for sub-minimum wages.
For many in the room that evening, in fact, the intruders coming across the border were threats to their personal safety—the same sentiment that has provoked stiff resistance to providing sanctuary to those fleeing the violence in Syria today.
One women at the event, Michelle Dallacrose, summed up their mounting rage and anxiety by pointing out to me in an interview how, as the founder of “Mothers Against Illegal Aliens,” she’s had “hundreds of thousands of mothers calling [her] whose children are being raped [by illegal immigrants.]”
Dallacrose was not alone in making such pathologically inaccurate claims.
She was more than matched by Iowa’s Republican Congressman Steve King, who has publicly stated—with zero factual basis—that 12 Americans a day are murdered by illegal immigrants, and 13 are killed daily by illegal drunken drivers.
In fact, as then-Mesa (Arizona) Police Chief George Gascon (now San Francisco’s District Attorney) would later point out to me in my interviews for the Playboy article, illegal immigrants actually commit less crime as a group than do native-born Americans. Since many of the illegals are disproportionately poor, young, and undereducated males– the very population traditionally most likely to get in trouble and be arrested—“they are less, not more, likely to be engaged in criminal activity,” he said.
Nevertheless, from the point of view of people like Dallacrose and King, they just keep on coming—even though recent figures show that the population of undocumented immigrants has dropped by one million since 2007,
“Now let me say this about illegal immigration,” Arpaio intoned, leaning into the podium. “I’ve been director of the U.S. drug enforcement in Mexico and South America, “So I do know a little about the Mexican people.
“In Texas and Arizona, I covered that border…and I think of all this as a conspiracy, If you have a dope dealer coming in and 15 people are buying the dope, they’re part of a conspiracy. That’s my opinion. So we’ve locked up 850 smugglers on conspiracy charges so far. And it’s a class- one felony. Not a little Mickey-Mouse misdemeanor.
“And we teach them to sing ‘God Bless America’ in jail. I can’t force them. But we can give them bread and water for two weeks if they don’t – so they sing “God Bless America’ – and they love it!”
At evening’s end, one woman shouted out, “We love you, Sheriff Joe,” as the audience gave him a standing ovation.
Today, Joe Arpaio’s long-standing actions have provided Donald Trump with both a law-enforcement stamp of approval, and an operational primer to begin enforcing the GOP frontrunner’s fantastical promise to round-up and deport 11 million undocumented immigrants.
If Trump emerges the victor in today’s Republican primary, he can thank Sheriff Joe for exploiting and exacerbating the climate of fear and hate that could make that possible.
Joe Domanick is West Coast bureau chief of The Crime Report, and Associate Director of the Center on Media, Crime and Justice at John Jay College in NYC. He is the author of “Blue: The LAPD and the Battle to Redeem American Policing.” Joe welcomes comments from readers.