The Handcuffing of Sheriff Joe

He was the country’s self-appointed immigration officer. Then the law started to catch up with him.

Maricopa County Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpiao talks with the media at an event for the Ariazona delegation to the Republican Natinoal Convention in Tampa, Fla. 
National Journal
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Terry Greene Sterling
July 31, 2014, 1:20 p.m.

On the even­ing of Ju­ly 22, Amer­ica’s Toughest Sher­iff ambled up to the lectern in a com­munity cen­ter in Goo­dyear, Ari­zona, a sub­urb about 17 miles west of Phoenix. A short, thickly built man with thin­ning, slicked-back hair, square glasses, a chubby nose, and thin, de­term­ined lips, Joe Arpaio looked out at his audi­ence. These were his people: a stand­ing-room-only crowd of about 50 mostly gray-haired, en­thu­si­ast­ic­ally ap­plaud­ing con­ser­vat­ives.

In this set­ting, even after five long years of see­ing his power wane, Arpaio was still the tea party’s chosen law­man. Twenty-two years earli­er, Re­pub­lic­ans had elec­ted him sher­iff of Mari­copa County, where he presided over 9,200 square miles of Son­or­an Desert and two-thirds of the state’s pop­u­la­tion. Oc­to­gen­ari­ans trus­ted him be­cause, at 82, he was one of them. Baby boomers, mean­while, revered him for his grit. “I got a knack,” Arpaio told me earli­er this year, “for know­ing what the people want.”

The folks in Goo­dyear wanted to hear about his on­go­ing in­vest­ig­a­tion of Pres­id­ent Obama’s birth cer­ti­fic­ate, and about his much-hyped in­quiry in­to the mys­ter­i­ous deaths of more than 20 dogs in a loc­al ken­nel. (Arpaio’s ag­gress­ive en­force­ment ef­forts ex­tend to an­im­al cruelty.) But most of all, they wanted to hear his ex­pert opin­ion on the latest im­mig­ra­tion con­tro­versy — how to handle the more than 50,000 kids, primar­ily from Cent­ral Amer­ica, who’d re­cently crossed in­to the United States without pa­pers.

Arpaio’s solu­tion was suc­cinct and crowd-pleas­ing: “Send ‘em back in an air-con­di­tioned air­plane!” he said. On a more ser­i­ous note, he ad­vised Obama to cut off all for­eign aid to Cent­ral Amer­ica and Mex­ico, and to send the Bor­der Patrol or U.S. mil­it­ary across the south­ern bor­der to help Mex­ico “fix the il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion” flow­ing up from Cent­ral Amer­ica.

He only hin­ted at the leg­al troubles that plagued him, stem­ming from his con­tro­ver­sial cru­sade to en­force im­mig­ra­tion on the loc­al level. “I’m in­vest­ig­ated by every­body. I have mon­it­ors,” he said, re­fer­ring to the court-ordered ob­serv­ers who now keep watch over his sher­iff’s de­part­ment. “You think I worry about mon­it­ors? Come on. I’ve been mon­itored by the White House. By the De­part­ment of Justice. By the ACLU. By the me­dia. And by my wife!”

When he opened up the room to ques­tions, a wo­man named Sue rose to say that coyotes — hu­man smug­glers — were “rap­ing and do­ing hor­rible things” to the Cent­ral Amer­ic­an kids. Obama was at fault, she was sure. But she had a ques­tion for the sher­iff, since he was in the know: Was it true that Cent­ral Amer­ic­an coun­tries were de­lib­er­ately send­ing their “sick­est kids” north?

This was a soft­ball; Arpaio has long railed about “il­leg­als” be­ing dis­ease-car­ri­ers. “I re­mem­ber when we were ar­rest­ing il­leg­al ali­ens,” Arpaio replied, “back when we had the au­thor­ity, that a lot of them had TB. We had evid­ence in our jail. “¦ And you’re telling me all these kids from Cent­ral Amer­ica … that they don’t have med­ic­al prob­lems? Come on.”

Two un­ac­com­pan­ied young girls who mi­grated from Cent­ral Amer­ica at a hold­ing cen­ter in Ari­zona. (Getty Im­ages)

As he wrapped it up for the even­ing, Arpaio said he fully ex­pec­ted to be reelec­ted for his sev­enth term in 2016, and that he planned to run again in 2020, when he’d be 88. If he had to cam­paign in a wheel­chair, he’d do it. He’d be like Ray­mond Burr in the old TV show Iron­side, he said. Only, he’d outdo Burr be­cause he’d strap a .50-caliber ma­chine gun to his chair.

He got a stand­ing ova­tion. Speech over, Arpaio walked slowly in­to the re­cep­tion hall. His bad leg gave out for a quick second, but he bal­anced him­self. He straightened the jack­et of his dark suit and posed for pho­tos. “God bless you, Sher­iff Joe,” a wo­man gushed. He shook hands with loc­al can­did­ates seek­ing his bless­ing in the up­com­ing GOP primar­ies. He signed a copy of his 1996 book, Amer­ica’s Toughest Sher­iff, and said, “I nev­er read my books.” A mom in­tro­duced Arpaio to her three kids, all wear­ing braces and grin­ning. He fished in his pock­et, and pulled out three cards bear­ing his por­trait. The cards said: “Who is Amer­ica’s Toughest Sher­iff? It’s SHER­IFF JOE ARPAIO.”

I’ve known and writ­ten about Arpaio throughout his two dec­ades in of­fice, and have found him to be a com­plic­ated, not par­tic­u­larly in­tro­spect­ive, man who de­fies the simplist­ic ex­plan­a­tions of fans and de­tract­ors. He can be dis­arm­ingly funny, yet bru­tally cold. I’ve asked him many times about the pain caused to Latino fam­il­ies caught up in his im­mig­ra­tion raids, but he al­ways eludes the ques­tion — a skill he’s per­fec­ted with re­port­ers over the years. “Don’t blame me, I just en­force the law,” he’ll say. Or he will bash his crit­ics for singling out the suf­fer­ing of Latino fam­il­ies without ac­know­ledging the suf­fer­ing of oth­er chil­dren whose par­ents lan­guish in his jails. “We feel sorry for all the kids,” he re­cently told me, “but why don’t they talk about the gen­er­al prob­lem?”

These last three years have ar­gu­ably been the toughest of his 50-year law-en­force­ment ca­reer, al­though he’s not the type to ad­mit it. Now largely stripped of his im­mig­ra­tion-en­force­ment powers, Arpaio has been re­duced to hold­ing forth on the sub­ject to loy­al­ists like the Goo­dyear Re­pub­lic­ans and, oc­ca­sion­ally, Fox News hosts Neil Cavuto and Sean Han­nity.

The story of Joe Arpaio’s rise and de­cline is a per­son­al and par­tic­u­lar one, but it’s also a lar­ger story of im­mig­ra­tion policy in Amer­ica. It’s a story that be­gins with para­lys­is in Con­gress. For years, the is­sue of il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion has cried out for some kind of com­pre­hens­ive na­tion­al re­form. But Con­gress’s in­ab­il­ity to act left the door open for oth­ers, like Arpaio, to act in­stead. It left a polit­ic­al void that was filled by Ari­zona’s harsh im­mig­ra­tion-en­force­ment laws — which were then ad­op­ted as mod­els by oth­er states. Arpaio, in turn, leaned on these laws to please his con­stitu­ency, and to tout him­self as a na­tion­al mod­el to sher­iffs and po­lice chiefs eager to take im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment in­to their own hands.

Even­tu­ally, though, while Con­gress dithered, the courts began to step in and define the con­sti­tu­tion­al lim­its of loc­al im­mig­ra­tion poli­cing — a pro­cess that con­tin­ues to threaten what little is left of Arpaio’s abil­ity to ar­rest un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. The tale of do-it-your­self im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment in Mari­copa County is the dir­ect res­ult of a na­tion­al polit­ic­al sys­tem that simply can­not fig­ure out what it wants to do on im­mig­ra­tion — leav­ing char­ac­ters like Arpaio and his ant­ag­on­ists in Ari­zona to fight it out on their own and test the leg­al lim­its of loc­al con­trol. 

WHEN ARPAIO FIRST ran for sher­iff in 1992, un­seat­ing an in­cum­bent who’d botched a mass-murder in­vest­ig­a­tion at a Buddhist temple, im­mig­ra­tion was not an is­sue at all. In fact, Arpaio not­ably said dur­ing his early years as sher­iff that he wouldn’t waste his crime-fight­ing re­sources chas­ing after un­doc­u­mented dish­wash­ers. He now says he made that state­ment be­cause he didn’t have the en­force­ment au­thor­ity to nab them back then. “Yeah, I said I would not lock up dish­wash­ers, be­cause there was no law at the time,” he re­cently told me.

Be­fore his long run as sher­iff, Arpaio, a child of the Great De­pres­sion, served in po­lice forces in Las Ve­gas and Wash­ing­ton, then worked for the Drug En­force­ment Ad­min­is­tra­tion for 22 years. With DEA, he and his wife, Ava, lived in Tur­key, Mex­ico, Bo­ston, San Ant­o­nio, Wash­ing­ton, and Chica­go, be­fore end­ing up in Phoenix, where he re­tired in 1982. He knew how to grab at­ten­tion, flat­ter­ing or not. In Phoenix, his drug-bust­ing earned him the nick­name “Nick­el Bag Joe,” be­cause he re­portedly fo­cused on pick­ing off lower-level deal­ers in­stead of the big guys. He at­trib­uted the cri­ti­cism to sour grapes and pro­fes­sion­al jeal­ousy.

After Arpaio stepped down from DEA in 1982, he once told me, the press “for­got” him. He and Ava op­er­ated a travel agency. They bought real es­tate. He was bored.

When he be­came sher­iff in 1993, the na­tion, Ari­zona in­cluded, was in the midst of a vi­ol­ent-crime wave. Arpaio prom­ised to crack down hard, and once in of­fice, he fo­cused on be­com­ing Amer­ica’s Toughest Sher­iff — and mak­ing sure every­body knew about it. He hired a seasoned tele­vi­sion re­port­er, Lisa Al­len, as his pub­lic-in­form­a­tion of­ficer. Al­len knew about news holes, and the daily scramble to fill them. Arpaio’s ideas — the Korean War sur­plus tents in which he housed pris­on­ers in stifling heat; the pink un­der­wear and pris­on-stripe jump­suits he had them wear; the vo­lun­teer posse of cit­izens as­sist­ing depu­ties; the chain gangs pick­ing up lit­ter — offered dozens of it­er­a­tions of made-for-TV news events. For the be­ne­fit of tele­vi­sion cam­er­as, Arpaio re­modeled his of­fice in­to a schlocky Old West ver­sion of one of his fam­ous jail tents. He and Al­len aler­ted loc­al re­port­ers to a stream of col­or­ful ini­ti­at­ives, such as send­ing out chain gangs to dig graves for the in­di­gent or raid­ing the homes of an­im­al-hoarders. The sher­iff be­came a fix­ture on loc­al air­waves and then, in­creas­ingly, on na­tion­al and cable TV. The pub­li­city drowned out re­ports of poor med­ic­al con­di­tions and wrong­ful deaths in his jails.

In­mates gathered around Arpaio dur­ing a 2012 walk-through of the jail tents in Mari­copa County. (AP Photo/Matt York)Arpaio lever­aged his celebrity in­to polit­ic­al power; his en­dorse­ment al­most guar­an­teed a can­did­ate’s suc­cess in Mari­copa County or statewide. Arpaio’s sup­port of Janet Na­pol­it­ano, a Demo­crat, paved her way to the gov­ernor­ship in 2002. His sub­sequent polit­ic­al part­ner­ship with two Re­pub­lic­an im­mig­ra­tion hard-liners — Rus­sell Pearce, a former chief deputy who was elec­ted to the Ari­zona House in 2000, and An­drew Thomas, who was elec­ted Mari­copa County at­tor­ney in 2004 — helped set the stage for Ari­zona’s pun­it­ive laws.

The state’s hu­man-smug­gling meas­ure, signed by Na­pol­it­ano in 2005, was sup­posed to tar­get coyotes by char­ging them with felon­ies for smug­gling. After con­sult­ing with Thomas, though, Arpaio’s depu­ties began ar­rest­ing truck­loads of un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rants — char­ging them with con­spir­ing to smuggle them­selves in­to Ari­zona.

Next, in 2007, Arpaio entered in­to a part­ner­ship with the Bush ad­min­is­tra­tion’s Home­land Se­cur­ity De­part­ment to en­force im­mig­ra­tion on the streets in Mari­copa County through an agree­ment with Im­mig­ra­tion and Cus­toms En­force­ment.

Then, be­fore she be­came Home­land Se­cur­ity sec­ret­ary un­der Pres­id­ent Obama, Na­pol­it­ano signed Arpaio’s fa­vor­ite bill, the em­ploy­er-sanc­tions law, which took ef­fect in 2008. The meas­ure en­abled Ari­zona to pun­ish em­ploy­ers who know­ingly hired un­doc­u­mented work­ers and — this is the part Arpaio liked — made it an ag­grav­ated felony to use a fake ID to work or try to find work. Soon Mari­copa County depu­ties were raid­ing car washes and res­taur­ants. As of Ju­ly 2014, the sher­iff’s de­part­ment had tar­geted more than 80 work­places and charged about 800 im­mig­rants with iden­tity-theft felon­ies.

If you were an un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rant, you did not want to be hit with a felony in Mari­copa County. Arpaio and friends had cham­pioned a law, still on the books today, that made un­doc­u­mented people who were charged with felon­ies in­eligible for pre­tri­al bail, mean­ing they could spend months in Arpaio’s “tough-love” jails be­fore even hav­ing a hear­ing. Most gave up and pleaded guilty. After serving their sen­tences, they were turned over to fed­er­al au­thor­it­ies for de­port­a­tion.

Ari­zona’s most in­fam­ous im­mig­ra­tion stat­ute — the “Show Me Your Pa­pers” law, passed in 2010 — turned all Ari­zona cops in­to im­mig­ra­tion en­for­cers by re­quir­ing them to check the im­mig­ra­tion status of any­one they stopped, ar­res­ted, or de­tained if they “reas­on­ably” sus­pec­ted the per­son was in the coun­try without pa­pers. Arpaio’s depu­ties nev­er had a chance to en­force SB 1070 in earn­est, be­cause the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion quickly sued Ari­zona over its con­sti­tu­tion­al­ity. Still, Arpaio’s use of the laws he did get to en­force cre­ated a sharp di­vide in Ari­zona between Lati­nos who felt tar­geted re­gard­less of their im­mig­ra­tion status and Anglos who didn’t un­der­stand why Lati­nos were of­fen­ded by ef­forts to up­hold the law. I covered sev­er­al marches in Phoenix in which thou­sands of grim-faced Lati­nos walked for sev­er­al miles, many tot­ing signs that cri­ti­cized Arpaio for break­ing up fam­il­ies, only to be greeted at the end by groups of neo-Nazis, Minute­men, and angry re­tir­ees wav­ing plac­ards that read, “We Love Sher­iff Joe.” 

ARPAIO HAD NO more en­thu­si­ast­ic im­mig­ra­tion-en­for­cer than Deputy Char­ley Ar­mendar­iz. Born in El Paso, Texas, in 1973, Ar­mendar­iz re­ferred to him­self as Mex­ic­an. Span­ish was his first lan­guage, and his folks still bur­ied their dead in the fam­ily plot in Juaréz. Ar­mendar­iz gradu­ated from high school in El Paso and served in the Navy. After his dis­charge, he joined the Aus­tin Po­lice De­part­ment. He moved to Phoenix in 2004 to take care of his moth­er, who had can­cer. Ar­mendar­iz ad­mired Sher­iff Arpaio and liked the way he left of­ficers alone to do their jobs. He be­came a deputy in 2005.

Ar­mendar­iz, who was also openly gay, dis­played a strong drive to prove him­self. Start­ing in 2007, un­der Mari­copa County’s part­ner­ship with the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, he was trained by ICE as an im­mig­ra­tion en­for­cer. He par­ti­cip­ated reg­u­larly in large-scale “sat­ur­a­tion patrols” that would stop vehicles with broken tail­lights or oth­er minor in­frac­tions and check the im­mig­ra­tion status of drivers and pas­sen­gers. If it bothered Ar­mendar­iz to ar­rest un­au­thor­ized Mex­ic­an mi­grants, or to stop and de­tain cit­izens who looked like him, he didn’t show it. More than 70 per­cent of the people he stopped were Lati­nos, al­though Lati­nos made up only 30 per­cent of Mari­copa County’s pop­u­la­tion.

On March 28, 2008, Ar­mendar­iz par- ticip­ated in a sat­ur­a­tion patrol that would later come to be em­blem­at­ic of the sher­iff’s style of poli­cing. The patrol tar­geted an area of north Phoenix fre­quen­ted by day laborers. Ar­mendar­iz pulled over a car with a broken tail­light. When the car stopped in a Quick Stop con­veni­ence store park­ing lot, the deputy, with no pro­voca­tion, hand­cuffed the Anglo driver after de­term­in­ing he had a sus­pen­ded li­cense. Ar­mendar­iz put him in his patrol car. Then — just to be safe, he would later say — he hand­cuffed the Latino pas­sen­ger, too, and had him sit on the front bump­er of the patrol car while he checked his im­mig­ra­tion status.

Just then, Velia Meraz and her broth­er Manuel Ni­eto Jr., both U.S. cit­izens, pulled in­to the Quick Stop park­ing lot. They yelled out to the cuffed pas­sen­ger: “¡No diga nada! ¡Pidale un abogado!” (“Don’t say any­thing! Ask for a law­yer!”) For reas­ons he could nev­er fully ex­plain, Ar­mendar­iz felt threatened by the sib­lings. He later test­i­fied, con­fus­ingly, that he feared for his life be­cause he’d heard pro­test­ers yelling ex­actly the same thing at sat­ur­a­tion-patrol com­mand posts when ar­res­ted im­mig­rants were hauled in. He some­how de­cided that the sib­lings must have guns, though he saw no weapons. Pan­icked, Ar­mendar­iz called for backup, in­vent­ing a story about the sib­lings try­ing to run him over as they drove off.

Melendres v. Arpaio would prove to be the stiffest leg­al test to Arpaio’s re­gime.

A deputy on a mo­tor­cycle chased Meraz and Ni­eto and stopped them as they pulled in­to their fath­er’s nearby auto shop. Ni­eto, busy di­al­ing 911, re­fused to roll down his win­dow. But then an­oth­er deputy roared onto the scene in his patrol car, lights flash­ing. This deputy poin­ted his gun at Ni­eto, who then al­lowed him­self to be pulled out of the car and hand­cuffed. After his iden­tity checked out, Ni­eto was re­leased with no charges. So was Meraz and, even­tu­ally, the Latino pas­sen­ger of the car Ar­mendar­iz had ori­gin­ally pulled over.

For a while, the in­cid­ent sank in­to ob­scur­ity. Ar­mendar­iz was not dis­cip­lined. But Meraz and Ni­eto couldn’t for­get it. They joined a fed­er­al class-ac­tion law­suit that had been filed the pre­vi­ous year un­der the name of the lead plaintiff, Manuel de Je­sus Or­tega Melendres, a Mex­ic­an cit­izen with a leg­al visa who claimed his con­sti­tu­tion­al rights were vi­ol­ated when he was de­tained by Arpaio’s depu­ties dur­ing a traffic stop in an area fre­quen­ted by day laborers. Melendres v. Arpaio would prove to be the stiffest leg­al test to Arpaio’s re­gime. But it wouldn’t be de­cided for an­oth­er four years. 

IN JU­LY 2009, Arpaio was pro­filed in The New York­er. It was one more sign that after 16 years in the sher­iff’s of­fice, he had achieved true fame. “I have el­ev­ated the role of sher­iff all over the world,” he told me at the time. “Nobody knew what a sher­iff was.” But that Oc­to­ber, for the first time, the con­sid­er­able en­force­ment powers he’d ac­crued began to be reined in. Arpaio’s one­time polit­ic­al ally, Home­land Se­cur­ity Sec­ret­ary Janet Na­pol­it­ano, re­voked his of­ficers’ fed­er­al au­thor­ity to en­force im­mig­ra­tion on the streets of Phoenix. (For two more years, the Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion did con­tin­ue to al­low Arpaio to screen in­mates for im­mig­ra­tion status.)

Arpaio re­spon­ded by de­fi­antly an— noun­cing that all 900 of his depu­ties would still en­force im­mig­ra­tion laws on the streets. Be­hind the scenes, his of­fice came up with a du­bi­ous leg­al jus­ti­fic­a­tion for con­tinu­ing to en­force fed­er­al im­mig­ra­tion law.

But the blow­back against his en­force­ment schemes was build­ing. Journ­al­ists, may­ors, po­lice chiefs, mod­er­ate Re­pub­lic­ans, Latino politi­cians, and im­mig­rant-rights ad­voc­ates com­plained about a sher­iff’s de­part­ment that vi­ol­ated civil rights and neg­lected routine po­lice du­ties. A small news­pa­per in Mari­copa County, the East Val­ley Tribune, won a Pulitzer Prize for re­port­ing on Arpaio’s di­ver­sion of re­sources and man­power from key poli­cing du­ties in or­der to fund the im­mig­ra­tion-en­force­ment ma­chine. The sher­iff’s de­part­ment, the Tribune found, had failed to in­vest­ig­ate hun­dreds of sex-crime cases. The sher­iff was forced to apo­lo­gize pub­licly. Arpaio said his people would re­in­vestig­ate the cases, but many leads had turned cold. Years later, he told me the sex-crime scan­dal was “in­ven­ted” by his en­emies.

Ir­rit­ated by the out­cry, Arpaio made what would turn out to be one of the biggest mis­takes of his ca­reer: He and Thomas, the county at­tor­ney, ini­ti­ated in­vest­ig­a­tions of their highest-pro­file crit­ics. Some, in­clud­ing my former boss Mike Lacey, a founder of the loc­al al­tern­at­ive weekly New Times and co-own­er of Vil­lage Voice Me­dia, were falsely ar­res­ted. Oth­ers were falsely in­dicted. No con­vic­tions res­ul­ted. In­stead, Thomas and Arpaio would end up be­ing suc­cess­fully sued by some of their tar­gets for civil-rights vi­ol­a­tions; the Justice De­part­ment would in­vest­ig­ate Arpaio for ab­use of power; and Thomas would be dis­barred for ma­li­cious pro­sec­u­tion.

While Arpaio battled his de­tract­ors, his of­ficers con­tin­ued to en­force his in­ter­pret­a­tion of Ari­zona’s im­mig­ra­tion laws. But those laws were in­creas­ingly fa­cing con­sti­tu­tion­al chal­lenges. In the va­cu­um left by Con­gress’s fail­ure to fix the na­tion­al sys­tem, the fed­er­al courts began to step in and ini­ti­ate their own ver­sion of im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

The fun­da­ment­al ques­tions had been forced by Arpaio and his al­lies: Did states have the right to en­force im­mig­ra­tion laws? Did loc­al im­mig­ra­tion en­for­cers vi­ol­ate the con­sti­tu­tion­al rights of those they stopped, de­tained, or ar­res­ted on im­mig­ra­tion charges?

The first big de­cision gave Arpaio no grief. In 2011, the U.S. Su­preme Court up­held por­tions of the em­ploy­er-sanc­tions law, rul­ing that Ari­zona had a right to dis­cip­line busi­nesses that hired un­au­thor­ized work­ers. The part of the law that Arpaio used to round up im­mig­rants in work­places had not been chal­lenged.

Then, in 2012, the Su­preme Court struck down three of four pro­vi­sions of SB 1070, Ari­zona’s “Show Me Your Pa­pers” law, which five oth­er states had copyc­at­ted. The justices did leave in­tact the pro­vi­sion that re­quired cops to check the im­mig­ra­tion status of those they stopped, de­tained, or ar­res­ted if they sus­pec­ted them of be­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants. But there was a con­sti­tu­tion­al catch: Of­ficers could not “un­reas­on­ably de­tain” people they’d stopped just to check their im­mig­ra­tion status. Prac­tic­ally speak­ing, that meant most people who were stopped would likely be re­leased be­fore their im­mig­ra­tion status could be de­term­ined.

In the va­cu­um left by Con­gress’s fail­ure to fix the na­tion­al sys­tem, the fed­er­al courts began to step in and ini­ti­ate their own ver­sion of im­mig­ra­tion re­form.

Arpaio vowed his de­part­ment would con­tin­ue re­ly­ing on the em­ploy­er-sanc­tions law to raid busi­nesses and round up un­au­thor­ized im­mig­rant work­ers. Now it was on to Melendres; the tri­al was slated for that sum­mer. Presid­ing would be a shrewd, con­ser­vat­ive fed­er­al Dis­trict Court judge named Mur­ray Snow. The tri­al would last sev­er­al days. Since there would be no jury, Arpaio’s fate would rest with the judge. 

ON THE OVEN-HOT morn­ing of Ju­ly 24, 2012, there wasn’t an empty seat in Judge Snow’s courtroom as Arpaio walked slowly, care­fully, to the wit­ness stand. Dressed in his usu­al nonuni­form at­tire — brown suit, crisp white shirt, ma­roon tie with a gold, pis­tol-shaped tie clip — he sat down, fol­ded his hands in front of him, and glanced around the oval courtroom. Most of the faces star­ing back at him were Latino. 

Snow, a bald­ing, be­spec­tacled man with pro­trud­ing ears, sat poker-faced, wait­ing for the testi­mony to be­gin. A former high school foot­ball star and a de­vout mem­ber of the Church of Je­sus Christ of Lat­ter-day Saints, he was nom­in­ated to the fed­er­al bench in 2007, the same year Arpaio had be­gun his im­mig­ra­tion raids. Snow had already taken some ac­tion to rein in Arpaio, is­su­ing sanc­tions for des­troy­ing doc­u­ments rel­ev­ant to the Melendres case and put­ting a stop to the long-stand­ing prac­tice of de­tain­ing un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants just be­cause they had no pa­pers, not be­cause they’d com­mit­ted crimes. Con­trary to Arpaio’s in­ter­pret­a­tion of fed­er­al law, Snow had ruled that hav­ing no pa­pers was not a crime but a civil vi­ol­a­tion.

The nine-mem­ber team of plaintiffs’ at­tor­neys — in­clud­ing pro bono law­yers from the mul­tina­tion­al firm Cov­ing­ton & Burl­ing, the ACLU, and the Mex­ic­an Amer­ic­an Leg­al De­fense and Edu­ca­tion­al Fund — evoked a visu­al meta­phor for the na­tion’s chan­ging demo­graph­ics. Some were chil­dren of im­mig­rants. Across the aisle, Arpaio’s de­fense team con­sisted of three white, male at­tor­neys, the best-known be­ing Tom Liddy, a former Re­pub­lic­an con­gres­sion­al can­did­ate who is the son of Wa­ter­gate con­spir­at­or G. Gor­don Liddy.

The de­fense claimed the Mari­copa County Sher­iff’s Of­fice had not en­gaged in ra­cial pro­fil­ing. The plaintiffs’ law­yers had come armed with two thick black-vinyl bind­ers of evid­ence to the con­trary. The hun­dreds of pages con­tained the sher­iff’s own press re­leases trum­pet­ing im­mig­ra­tion sweeps; in-house deputy emails con­tain­ing den­ig­rat­ing jokes about Mex­ic­ans (a “rare photo of a Mex­ic­an Navy Seal” showed a Chi­hua­hua in scuba gear); and pas­sages from the sher­iff’s book Joe’s Law that cast as­per­sions on Mex­ic­an im­mig­rants. (Arpaio blamed his coau­thor, testi­fy­ing that he nev­er reads his own books.)

Kath­ryn Kobor, one of Arpaio’s most ar­dent fans, of­ten coun­ter­demon­strates when the sher­iff’s crit­ics protest his policies. (Sam­antha Sais/The New York Times)Equally damning were reams of con­stitu­ent emails, phone mes­sages, and let­ters prais­ing Arpaio’s crack­downs and re­quest­ing sweeps to rid par­tic­u­lar neigh­bor­hoods of “il­leg­als.” The let­ters read like a cata­log of white res­id­ents’ re­sent­ments and fears. They were cru­cial to the case: The plaintiffs al­leged that Arpaio, who had cop­ies of the let­ters, passed them along to his un­der­lings, who then set up race-based traffic stops in many of the areas con­stitu­ents re­ques­ted. The com­mu­niqués were dis­played on large screens in the courtroom, and Arpaio was asked to com­ment on them:

Just today at the gro­cery store, I was check­ing out when I no­ticed a mex­ic­an [sic] lady stand­ing mind­lessly at the end of the belt. She ex­pect­antly asked me, ‘Hablo [sic] Es­pan­ol?’ This is be­com­ing a most an­noy­ing oc­cur­rence and it is not ceas­ing to stop. “¦ I humbly be­seech you to re­turn to Mesa and help lib­er­ate this city of the il­leg­als that swarm the street.”

“I would love to see an im­mig­rant sweep con­duc­ted in Sur­prise, es­pe­cially — or spe­cific­ally at the in­ter­sec­tion of Grand and Gre­en­way. The area con­tains dozens of day work­ers at­tempt­ing to flag down mo­tor­ists sev­en days a week.”

“Lastly, we would like to know why the Mex­ic­ans are al­lowed to park on the corner of 99th and Broad­way ped­dling their old corn, pea­nuts, et cet­era.”

“All of a sud­den a large amount of these Mex­ic­ans swarmed around my car, and I was so scared and alarmed and the only al­tern­at­ive I had was to manu­ally dir­ect them away from my car.”

Arpaio stead­fastly denied that any raids were set up to mol­li­fy con­stitu­ents, al­though he ac­know­ledged that he sent thank-you notes to the let­ter-writers. Ra­cial pro­fil­ing, he said, was “im­mor­al and il­leg­al.”

Some­times, as his daylong testi­mony wore on, the sher­iff ab­sently twiddled his thumbs. Mostly he sat still as a statue, an­swer­ing ques­tions with a flat af­fect. Oc­ca­sion­ally, he asked the ques­tion­ing at­tor­ney, Stan­ley Young, to re­peat him­self, be­cause he couldn’t hear.

Young per­sisted, at one point ask­ing: “Do you have any re­grets about things that you have done in the area of il­leg­al immi-gra­tion such that if you could start over again you would do things dif­fer­ently the second time?”

Arpaio: “Well, you — no one is ever per­fect, but in gen­er­al terms we’ve done a good job, been well trained, and I stand by that.”

Young: “So you don’t know of any­thing that you would do dif­fer­ently if you had the chance to do it, is that right?” 

Arpaio: “Not right now.”

As Arpaio left Snow’s courtroom, he ap­peared un­fazed. He stopped to rib a loc­al re­port­er, then dis­ap­peared with an en­tour­age of law­yers and staffers in­to the el­ev­at­or. Out­side, anti-Arpaio protests had swelled in size as the day wore on. The demon­strat­ors chanted: “¡Aquí es­tamos! ¡Y no nos va­mos! ¡Y si nos echan, re­gres­am­os! (“We’re here! We won’t leave! And if they kick us out, we’ll re­turn!”) But Arpaio, usu­ally spoil­ing for a TV-friendly con­front­a­tion, was not in the mood to en­gage them.

The na­tion­al me­dia, aside from Fox News, had lost in­terest. A fed­er­al judge in Phoenix had slapped down the Arpaio-Thomas in­ter­pret­a­tion of the hu­man-smug­gling law. But the biggest wal­lop was yet to come.

Now he had an elec­tion to worry about. Arpaio was fa­cing his first ser­i­ous reelec­tion chal­lenge. Des­pite the leg­al tangles, he threw him­self in­to the cam­paign with vig­or. He hit upon a bril­liant polit­ic­al move: in­vest­ig­at­ing Obama’s birth cer­ti­fic­ate. It worked like a charm; a new flood of me­dia cov­er­age dis­trac­ted voters from his leg­al troubles and fur­ther ce­men­ted his status as a na­tion­al tea-party celebrity. Arpaio vastly out­spent his op­pon­ent and won his sixth term. But the 6 per­cent­age-point vic­tory mar­gin was the closest since his first elec­tion.

THE YEAR 2013 had already be­gun badly. Arpaio had fallen on his way to lunch one day, break­ing his shoulder and spur­ring more whis­pers that he’d got­ten too old and frail for the job. The na­tion­al me­dia, aside from Fox News, had lost in­terest. A fed­er­al judge in Phoenix — not Snow — had slapped down the Arpaio-Thomas in­ter­pret­a­tion of the hu­man-smug­gling law, pro­hib­it­ing Arpaio from char­ging mi­grants with a felony be­cause they’d con­spired to smuggle them­selves in­to Ari­zona. But the biggest wal­lop was yet to come.

On May 24, 2013, 10 months after the sher­iff’s testi­mony, Judge Snow ruled in a 142-page doc­u­ment that Arpaio and his agency had in­deed en­gaged in un­con­sti­tu­tion­al poli­cing and had ra­cially pro­filed Lati­nos. They’d vi­ol­ated the Fourth Amend­ment by de­tain­ing Lati­nos for no leg­al reas­on, Snow said; they’d vi­ol­ated the 14th Amend­ment by tar­get­ing the same pop­u­la­tion for traffic stops. Arpaio and his agency, the judge made clear, had “no ac­cur­ate leg­al basis” for en­for­cing im­mig­ra­tion.

The rul­ing was dev­ast­at­ingly com­pre­hens­ive, de­mol­ish­ing al­most every en­force­ment tac­tic that Arpaio had em­ployed. But the sher­iff re­fused to ad­mit Snow had hog-tied him. He blamed ICE for im­prop­erly train­ing his depu­ties by telling them they could use eth­ni­city and race as factors when de­cid­ing who could be stopped and checked for be­ing in the coun­try without pa­pers. 

Judge Snow had ac­cep­ted that ex­cuse in his rul­ing — but only to a point. ICE, he said, had wrongly trained Arpaio’s of­ficers that “they could con­sider race and Mex­ic­an an­ces­try as one factor among oth­ers in mak­ing law-en­force­ment de­cisions dur­ing im­mig­ra­tion en­force­ment op­er­a­tions without vi­ol­at­ing the leg­al re­quire­ments per­tain­ing to ra­cial bi­as in poli­cing.” But Snow also poin­ted out that an ICE agent had test­i­fied he would “def­in­itely be con­cerned if traffic stops were be­ing used as pre­text” to in­vest­ig­ate im­mig­ra­tion status.

Arpaio swore he wouldn’t stand down. He would con­tin­ue us­ing his one re­main­ing tool: char­ging un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants with felon­ies un­der the em­ploy­er-sanc­tions law. Snow wasn’t fin­ished, though. In Oc­to­ber 2013, the judge filed a 59-page list of re­forms that Arpaio’s de­part­ment was re­quired to in­sti­tute, in­clud­ing new policies and train­ing for “bi­as-free” poli­cing, im­proved re­cord-keep­ing, and mak­ing au­dio-video re­cord­ings of all traffic stops. The judge em­bed­ded a mon­it­or in the sher­iff’s of­fice to make sure his or­ders were car­ried out and to re­port back to the court. The once-mighty sher­iff now had a mind­er.

Arpaio con­fronts pro­test­ers dur­ing a 2010 rally in Ran­cho Bern­ardo, Cali­for­nia. (Sandy Huffaker/Getty Im­ages)At a deputy meet­ing fol­low­ing Snow’s rul­ing, Arpaio con­tra­dicted the judge’s find­ings and denied that the de­part­ment had ra­cially pro­filed. His chief deputy, Jerry Sherid­an, said every law­yer he’d spoken with had in­dic­ated that Snow was vi­ol­at­ing the Con­sti­tu­tion. Snow’s rul­ings, Sherid­an said, were “ludicrous.” They were “crap.”

Either Sherid­an and Arpaio didn’t know, or didn’t care, that they were be­ing video­taped. Six months later, on March 24 of this year, Judge Snow, after re­view­ing the video, called Arpaio and Sherid­an back to court and lec­tured them about mis­char­ac­ter­iz­ing the court’s find­ings and “send­ing mixed mes­sages to those depu­ties about whose or­ders they have to com­ply with” — his or Arpaio’s.

Sub­sequently, in a writ­ten or­der, Snow re­quired all sher­iff’s of­fice per­son­nel to read a sum­mary of his rul­ing and sign to af­firm that they’d read it. (The Con­sti­tu­tion gave Arpaio a First Amend­ment out; as an elec­ted of­fi­cial, he couldn’t be made to sign something he dis­agreed with. The rest of the de­part­ment com­plied.)

Shortly after, in mid-April, I vis­ited Arpaio in his of­fice. He’s known to have a sharp tem­per, and al­though I couldn’t make out what he was say­ing, I heard him yell at staffers as I sat in the wait­ing room. A few minutes later, when I was ushered in, he was com­posed. But he wouldn’t talk about Snow, or the case. “The only thing I will say is this: I run this of­fice. I’m the elec­ted con­sti­tu­tion­al sher­iff, and we are ap­peal­ing. That’s it.”

There is an im­port­ant de­tail that he doesn’t men­tion about the ap­peal: It nev­er denies that ra­cial pro­fil­ing oc­curred in the sat­ur­a­tion patrols; it only as­serts that it was less wide­spread than the judge found.

Arpaio’s new headquar­ters, where he re­lo­cated in late 2013, sits on the top floor of the Mari­copa County Sher­iff’s Of­fice, a con­crete-and-glass struc­ture in cent­ral Phoenix that’s shaped like an in­ver­ted tri­angle. From his desk, he can peer out the win­dow at a sprawl­ing gray in­dus­tri­al area. Framed pro­files from na­tion­al news­pa­pers and magazines, dat­ing from the height of his no­tori­ety, line the nearby wall.

“All I did was work, work, work, work,” he said, look­ing at an­oth­er wall lined with his badges and DEA cre­den­tials. “That’s the way I am. That’s my char­ac­ter. I al­ways work hard. I am not a — I don’t have all these de­grees and all this stuff, I just work hard. And that proves that if you work hard in this coun­try, you can be any­thing you want to be.”

For two dec­ades, Arpaio had played the role of the hero he cre­ated, Amer­ica’s Toughest Sher­iff. What hap­pens when the char­ac­ter is no longer so com­pel­ling, so con­vin­cing? It must have been pain­ful, I sug­ges­ted, when the courts star­ted cut­ting off his en­force­ment power. But Arpaio isn’t much for self-re­flec­tion. “As far as strictly en­for­cing the il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion, just be­ing here il­leg­ally, yeah, we don’t do that any­more. … I’m not cer­ti­fied by the fed­er­al gov­ern­ment, which we were when we were do­ing this.” (Snow had ruled, to the con­trary, that Arpaio kept en­for­cing im­mig­ra­tion long after the feds had pulled out.) But he could still “ar­rest people work­ing with fake iden­ti­fic­a­tion,” he poin­ted out. And “if all of them hap­pen to be in the coun­try il­leg­ally,” he said, “that’s not the main is­sue. The main is­sue is they vi­ol­ated state laws.”

For two dec­ades, Arpaio had played the role of the hero he cre­ated, Amer­ica’s Toughest Sher­iff. What hap­pens when the char­ac­ter is no longer so com­pel­ling, so con­vin­cing?

By now, his anti-im­mig­rant com­rades had met their down­fall. County At­tor­ney Thomas had been dis­barred. Rus­sell Pearce, who pushed the im­mig­ra­tion laws through the Ari­zona Le­gis­lature, had lost a re­call elec­tion. Arpaio took it as a badge of hon­or that he was the only one still stand­ing. “I sleep at night,” he told me.

But his sur­viv­al didn’t come cheap. To date, Mari­copa County tax­pay­ers have paid a total of $86.7 mil­lion to settle leg­al claims as­so­ci­ated with the sher­iff, in­clud­ing pay­outs for wrong­ful jail deaths and mul­tiple ab­use-of-power claims. The de­fense and im­ple­ment­a­tion of Judge Snow’s or­ders in the Melendres case will run an­oth­er $23.6 mil­lion. So how about those mount­ing leg­al ex­penses? Don’t blame Arpaio, he says; he didn’t file the law­suits.

THE DAY AFTER our in­ter­view, I joined Arpaio aboard a South­w­est Air­lines flight, bound for the Hol­ly­wood screen­ing of a doc­u­ment­ary called The Joe Show. The sher­iff sat in the front row so he could have leg room. Phoenix film­maker Randy Mur­ray sat sev­er­al rows back. He spent 10 years mak­ing the doc­u­ment­ary, which fo­cuses on Arpaio’s sym­bi­ot­ic re­la­tion­ship with the press. “People like Sher­iff Arpaio and [Toronto May­or] Rob Ford get press be­cause they’re clowns on TV,” Mur­ray had told me a few days be­fore. “Not be­cause they have solu­tions, be­cause they cause prob­lems.” Mur­ray, a lifelong lib­er­al, said he’d found Arpaio to be harder to dis­like than he’d ex­pec­ted, a “lov­able, funny man who says he really cares about pro­tect­ing the pub­lic, and the irony is, he doesn’t pro­tect the pub­lic.”

Mur­ray had shown the doc­u­ment­ary to Arpaio at a private screen­ing, and re­called the sher­iff was “furi­ous.” But after the film was shown at a Phoenix film fest­iv­al and writ­ten up in the loc­al news­pa­per, Mur­ray said Arpaio called back and vo­lun­teered to help pro­mote the movie. Any pub­li­city, in the sher­iff’s world, is good pub­li­city.

On the air­plane, Arpaio was still a celebrity. “Sher­iff Joe, thank you for what you do,” one man said. “We’ve got your back.” A flight at­tend­ant made a heart sign with her fin­gers. At the Bob Hope Air­port in Burb­ank, the sher­iff was stopped five times by fans. “Sher­iff Joe, you rock,” said a wo­man with a horse­shoe tat­too on her foot. A man from Wash­ing­ton state clasped Arpaio’s hand: “God bless you, Sher­iff Joe. Every­body in east­ern Wash­ing­ton loves you.”

When we ar­rived, he had dif­fi­culty step­ping up in­to the wait­ing van. Once in­side, he noted, out of the blue, that some Mex­ic­an res­taur­ants serve “Wop Salad.” Why, he wanted to know, didn’t the feds go after people who use the word “Wop”?

The van pulled up in front of the old Grau­man’s Chinese Theatre in Hol­ly­wood, where the screen­ing would take place in a couple of hours. “This is a crappy neigh­bor­hood,” Arpaio de­clared after step­ping out of the van. He traipsed on stars’ names em­bed­ded in the side­walk. Nearby, two act­ors dressed as Elmo and Cook­ie Mon­ster were pos­ing with tour­ists for pho­tos and tips. When they re­cog­nized the sher­iff, they took pic­tures with him. Then an act­or in a Won­der Wo­man cos­tume came up and wrapped a thin rope around the sher­iff’s chest. Arpaio seemed at first be­wildered and angry. Then he got his bear­ings. It was all a gag, he real­ized. “She’s just try­ing to make a buck,” he said.

After a bowl of pea soup with salt­ine crack­ers at a nearby res­taur­ant, Arpaio took the es­cal­at­or back down to the side­walk in front of the theat­er — he can’t do stairs any­more — and gave brief in­ter­views to a couple of Los Angeles re­port­ers. Two tour­ists from Ecuador re­cog­nized Arpaio and asked for a photo just be­fore an Amer­ic­an Lat­ina passed by and said loudly to her friends, “That’s Arpaio! He hates Lat­in people. He hates His­pan­ics. I know about him from the news.”

The sher­iff didn’t hear. He fol­ded his hands be­hind his back and seemed to be wait­ing to be re­cog­nized by oth­er pass­ersby. It had been a waste of time, he told me, com­ing all this way. He’d ex­pec­ted big crowds of angry demon­strat­ors, and he’d planned on con­front­ing them. In­stead, after pos­ing for a Span­ish-lan­guage net­work in front of Frank Sinatra’s star, he made his way in­to the theat­er, where the doc­u­ment­ary was about to be­gin, two flights of stairs up. His pub­lic-in­form­a­tion of­ficer scrambled and found an el­ev­at­or for the sher­iff, just in time.

In the darkened theat­er, Arpaio put one foot care­fully in front of the oth­er, mak­ing sure not to tumble and break that shoulder again. The place was pretty much empty; only about 35 people had shown up, in­clud­ing two fans from Phoenix wear­ing “God Bless Sher­iff Joe” sweat­shirts. Chin in hand, Arpaio re­watched The Joe Show. A couple of times, he made com­ments in his own de­fense, but mainly he just sat stone-faced. Most of Mur­ray’s film was “garbage,” he told me after it ended.

SEV­ER­AL DAYS AFTER the screen­ing, Char­ley Ar­mendar­iz, the overzeal­ous deputy who’d har­assed the Lati­nos at the Quick Stop, had a nervous break­down.

In an ap­par­ent cloud of para­noia, Ar­mendar­iz called 911 from his small tract home in west Phoenix. He said there might be a burg­lar in his gar­age. When po­lice of­ficers re­spon­ded to his call, he asked them to check a large box on a gar­age shelf to see if any­one was hid­ing in­side. The cops didn’t find any­one, but in­stead dis­covered drugs and a mish­mash of sher­iff’s-of­fice files. A sub­sequent search war­rant turned up a be­wil­der­ing stash of drugs and doc­u­ments. Meth, pot, LSD, heroin, co­caine. Cred­it cards, So­cial Se­cur­ity cards, Mex­ic­an con­su­lar cards, and vot­ing cards, Ari­zona driver’s li­censes, Mex­ic­an driver’s li­censes, Mex­ic­an pesos, pass­ports. Fifty li­cense plates. A sawed-off shot­gun.

Ar­mendar­iz had been a key de­fense wit­ness for Arpaio, but his lengthy testi­mony had ul­ti­mately provided fod­der for Judge Snow’s find­ing that the de­part­ment had prac­ticed ra­cial pro­fil­ing. “The court con­cludes that Deputy Ar­mendar­iz con­sidered race as one factor among oth­ers in mak­ing law en­force­ment de­cisions,” the judge wrote in his rul­ing. Now he was ar­res­ted and charged with weapons and drug vi­ol­a­tions. He told sher­iff’s in­vest­ig­at­ors that oth­er mem­bers of the de­part­ment were cor­rupt, that he was in­no­cent. A few days later, after his re­lease, he bar­ri­caded him­self in his house for nine hours in a stan­doff with po­lice. This time, they took him to a psy­chi­at­ric fa­cil­ity. He re­turned home and, days later, hanged him­self. Arpaio’s of­fice was back in the head­lines, in the worst pos­sible way.

When we spoke not long after Ar­mendar­iz’s sui­cide, Arpaio in­sisted that his deputy’s mis­deeds were not the product of his de­part­ment’s policies. “This is a unique situ­ation,” he said, “where you have a deputy who star­ted do­ing things on his own.”

As al­ways, Arpaio said he was sol­dier­ing on, un­daun­ted. He had “the ID theft,” as he called it, to work with. The oth­er rul­ings? Well, he was ap­peal­ing. He trus­ted the courts. They would do the right thing.

And what if they don’t? I asked. What if you have every last bit of im­mig­ra­tion au­thor­ity taken away? “OK, if they win, I’ll go back to ar­rest­ing hook­ers on Van Bur­en Street like I star­ted my ca­reer on,” he said. “I got a lot of things to do, be­lieve me. Il­leg­al im­mig­ra­tion isn’t my top pri­or­ity. It nev­er really has been. I’ve been out­spoken, and we had au­thor­ity to en­force the laws. And we did a pretty good job. In fact, the job was too good. That’s why they in­vest­ig­ated me and took away my au­thor­ity, which is sad. And what’s really sad, no one wants to do any­thing about it.”

ONE AF­TER­NOON IN mid-June, Car­los and Sandra Figueroa and their 14-year-old daugh­ter, Kathy, joined a group of about 35 Lati­nos who gathered out­side Arpaio’s headquar­ters to hand-de­liv­er yet an­oth­er class-ac­tion law­suit to the sher­iff. This con­sti­tu­tion­al chal­lenge, filed in fed­er­al court earli­er that day by a min­is­ter, a hu­man-rights group, and two un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants con­victed of iden­tity theft after a work­place raid, aimed to des­troy the last re­main­ing weapon in the sher­iff’s im­mig­ra­tion-en­force­ment ar­sen­al — his power to charge un­doc­u­mented work­ers with felon­ies un­der the Em­ploy­er Sanc­tions Law.

The Figueroas knew firsthand the trauma Arpaio’s work­place raids caused. In 2009, Arpaio’s depu­ties ar­res­ted Car­los and Sandra, both un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants from Mex­ico, dur­ing a raid of a Phoenix car wash. Kathy, who was then 9 and is a U.S. cit­izen by birth, happened to be flip­ping through TV chan­nels at her babysit­ter’s house when she came upon her par­ents on the screen, hands fastened with zip-ties, be­ing led away by depu­ties. At a time when na­tion­al de­bate was ra­ging over Arpaio’s prac­tices, the story of the little girl watch­ing her par­ents get ar­res­ted on tele­vi­sion be­came a meme on cable news and the In­ter­net.

The Figueroas were charged with iden­tity theft be­cause they’d used fake So­cial Se­cur­ity num­bers to get jobs. They were also charged with for­gery.

Ul­ti­mately, un­like many of the 800 or so oth­ers who were nabbed in Mari­copa County’s work­place raids and de­por­ted, the couple pre­vailed. Des­per­ate to avoid de­port­a­tion, they man­aged to beat Arpaio’s sys­tem by hir­ing com­pet­ent at­tor­neys and run­ning up a leg­al debt they say has reached $30,000. The Figueroas plea-bar­gained the iden­tity theft and for­gery charges down to crim­in­al im­per­son­a­tion, a less­er felony they say will even­tu­ally be­come a mis­de­mean­or on their re­cords. As un­doc­u­mented im­mig­rants, they were un­able to ob­tain bail, and wound up serving three un­pleas­ant (two meals a day, a thou­sand-dol­lar phone bill for calls to Kathy) months in the sher­iff’s jails be­fore they re­turned home to their trau­mat­ized daugh­ter, who’d been liv­ing with her aunt.

After fend­ing off de­port­a­tion in im­mig­ra­tion court for four years, Car­los said, they were fi­nally gran­ted re­new­able work pa­pers that al­low them to live without fear in the United States, where they’ve been for 17 years. Ab­sent im­mig­ra­tion re­form, they can’t qual­i­fy for green cards, so they re­main in a sort of im­mig­ra­tion limbo with their re­new­able pa­pers.

The years since he and his wife were caught up in the Arpaio raid have been a mix­ture of “hell and hope,” Car­los told me. I asked him what he thought of Arpaio. He said he wouldn’t “dig­ni­fy” the sher­iff by think­ing about him. “I fo­cus on the fam­ily” — the Figueroas now have two daugh­ters — “on my daugh­ters’ edu­ca­tions, on their get­ting ahead. That, and justice for my His­pan­ic com­munity, is what I think about,” he said.

Arpaio nev­er came out to ac­cept his copy of the law­suit. After the lit­ig­ants dis­persed, he ven­tured down­stairs. His pub­li­cist had ar­ranged for him to be presen­ted an award by an ob­scure group of cit­izen crime-fight­ers, just in case there were any TV cam­er­as around. Of course, there were. But the more-seasoned loc­al re­port­ers had long since grown cyn­ic­al about Arpaio’s staged photo ops. In­stead, they asked him to ex­plain how us­ing a fic­ti­tious iden­tity that be­longs to no one could amount to an ag­grav­ated felony.

He looked tired. The last few years of leg­al and me­dia battles had taken their toll. But he could still fend off re­port­ers when they got too nosy. Arpaio re­fused to re­spond to the “leg­al points” of the new law­suit, say­ing only that he would fight it. Just like he was ap­peal­ing Judge Snow’s rul­ing in Melendres. Just like he was fight­ing a ma­jor Justice De­part­ment law­suit now slowly pro­gress­ing to­ward a tri­al in fed­er­al court. Just like he’d been brush­ing off de­term­ined en­emies throughout his ca­reer. “I seem to be the tar­get,” he said, rolling his eyes at the jaun­diced re­port­ers. “It’s al­ways Arpaio, Arpaio.”

Terry Greene Ster­ling is a writer in Ari­zona. Fol­low her on Twit­ter


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