Joe Arpaio, the freewheeling sheriff of Arizona’s Maricopa County, visited Las Vegas on Friday, defending his state’s tough new immigration law, saying that it will not, as critics have charged, lead to widespread racial profiling.
In fact, he said the law, which makes it a state crime to be in the U.S. illegally and directs police to question people about their immigration status if there is reason to suspect they’re illegal immigrants, adds little more than a small degree of cover for the aggressive immigration programs that have earned him the label of “America’s toughest sheriff.”
“We’ve been doing almost the same as that new law,” he told reporters at a roundtable discussion organized by the Nevada News Bureau. “Now, law enforcement won’t have any problems.”
The issue is relevant here because Republican Assemblyman Chad Christensen, a long-shot candidate for U.S. Senate, is drafting a ballot initiative that would replicate the Arizona law in Nevada. Immigration is also a flashpoint in the governor’s race, with former federal Judge Brian Sandoval supporting the Arizona law and Gov. Jim Gibbons opposing it.
As a result of the law, Arpaio said, officers have more flexibility to ask people about their immigration status during workplace raids. “Everything else, we’ve been doing it anyway, and we’ve been doing a good job without much controversy, outside of the demonstrators,” he said. “Let’s give the new law a chance.”
Arpaio has taken heat for turning the sheriff’s office into a sort of freelance immigration-enforcement agency. He has he set up a hot line for the public to report immigration violations, conducts crime and immigration sweeps in heavily Latino neighborhoods and frequently raids workplaces for people in the U.S. illegally.
Many in the Latino community consider him and his policies to be racist, a charge he denied with vigor. “I’m not a racist, like people say I am,” he said. “I have never gone on the street corner and grabbed someone because they look like they’re from another country. We don’t do that.” Officers ask about immigration status only if people have been detained for a crime, such as speeding, he said.
Arpaio portrayed himself as a victim, lamenting activists who have pictured him alongside Adolph Hitler and smashed pinatas with his image. He said Arizona’s immigration law is widely misunderstood, even as many groups have organized a business boycott of the state.
Addressing another criticism, he said the law protects victims and witnesses who are here illegally from deportation, noting that most of his office’s crime tips come from illegal immigrants. “I think the panic and the hype and the misinformation is causing people to feel it’s worse that it is,” he said.
Arpaio said President Barack Obama has misunderstood the new law, saying perhaps the controversy called for a “beer summit” similar to when the president met with Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Cambridge, Mass., police Sgt. James Crowley to calm tensions after a racially-tinged arrest. “Why doesn’t he invite me to the White House so I can have some wine?” Arpaio asked. [LOL]
Still, the Obama administration has had its sights on Arpaio. He’s the target of a Justice Department investigation into discriminatory conduct. A federal grand jury met this week to explore allegations of abuses of power and prosecutorial authority, according to the Arizona Republic.
On Friday, Arpaio taunted federal investigators. “They’ve been at it for a year and a half,” he said. “I feel very comfortable they are not going to find anything on racial profiling.” He also said controversy helps his poll numbers.
Arpaio said that his aggressive immigration enforcement has contributed to a reduction in the crime rate. “Everybody is moving out of town. That’s a good thing,” he said. “Let them move to Nevada and California. I think our program is working as a deterrent.”
He said that 18 percent of inmates who go through the county jail system are found to be undocumented. Stepped-up enforcement is needed because of escalating violence on the border, he said. “The violence has increased,” he said. “It’s volatile and it’s getting worse. It seems like the president can’t get a hold on it. I presume he’s doing the best he can. But people feel this violence is going to cross our borders. … We have a 2,000-mile border that doesn’t seem secure, and there’s always that chance a terrorist could come across.”
For all his detractors, Arpaio had no apologies or regrets. “I’m not really sorry about anything I did in my life,” he said, before adding, “Maybe I should have run for governor — not now — years ago. Maybe that would have given me a chance to run for president.”
After an hour of jousting, he was off to speak to a group of conservatives at Stoney’s Rockin’ Country bar in Las Vegas, where pro-immigration groups planned to protest his appearance. “The more the merrier,” Arpaio said. “They follow me everywhere. I hope they spend some money in your casinos.”