Want to know what Arizona’s new immigration law will look like in practice? Just ask Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He and his deputies have been stopping people and asking for evidence of their immigration status for years.
“It’s not that big of a deal,” he told The Associated Press in an interview. “I’ve been doing it all this time. I didn’t see anyone boycotting the state.”
Arizona’s sweeping new law mirrors many of the policies Arpaio has put into place in the greater Phoenix area, where 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.
While Arpaio has long come under fire for policies many see as racist, he was surprised at the national outrage over Arizona’s new 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.
“That law is something we’ve always been doing anyway,” Arpaio said. “The cops could have been doing this. They’ve always had the inherent authority. We’re just the only ones who’ve been doing it.”
Current law in Arizona and most states doesn’t require police to ask about the immigration status of those they encounter, and some police officials say allowing such questions would deter immigrants from cooperating in other investigations.
President Barack Obama has questioned the legality of the new Arizona law, and civil rights leaders are calling for the rest of the nation to boycott Arizona, saying the law may lead to racial profiling.
The law is set to take effect in late July, but it likely won’t change life much in Phoenix and its surrounding suburbs.
Since early 2008, Arpaio has run 15 crime and immigration sweeps, including one last weekend in Phoenix that led to the arrest of dozens of illegal immigrants.
He sends as many as 200 deputies and volunteer posse members into a designated locale to set up a mobile command post and seek out traffic violators, people wanted on criminal warrants and others.
Critics say his deputies pull people over for minor traffic infractions because of the color of their skin so they can ask them for their proof of citizenship.
Arpaio denies allegations of racial profiling, saying people are stopped if deputies have probable cause to believe they’ve committed crimes and that it’s only afterward that deputies find many of them are illegal immigrants.
Arpaio also has used a controversial interpretation of a state law to arrest more than 2,000 illegal immigrants since 2006. Under the law – as interpreted by former Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas – illegal immigrants can be arrested and prosecuted for conspiracy to smuggle themselves into the country.
The law’s authors intended it to be used to prosecute often-violent smugglers, not the immigrants being smuggled.
Arpaio, who calls himself “America’s toughest sheriff,” hasn’t backed down, despite a federal investigation.
For more than a year, the U.S. Justice Department has been investigating Arpaio’s office for alleged discrimination and for unconstitutional searches and seizures.
Although the federal agency won’t provide any details on its probe, Arpaio said the inquiry is focused on his immigration efforts.
While “Sheriff Joe” gets attention for his immigration policies, many know him for making inmates wear pink underwear and eat a green bologna diet, creating old-time chain gangs and cracking down on parents who don’t pay child support.
Arpaio had his own TV show, “Smile … You’re Under Arrest!” on Fox Reality Channel, and some of his female deputies currently are on TLC’s “Police Women of Maricopa County.”
But with Republican Gov. Jan Brewer now leading Arizona’s illegal immigration fight, it’s unclear what Arpaio’s next move will be.
Arpaio discounted a run for governor on Monday.
“I have come so far and accomplished so much in the past 18 years as sheriff that to leave now just doesn’t make sense,” Arpaio said in a statement announcing his decision. “Right now, we are standing in the cross-hairs of history in this state and as sheriff of the most populous county in Arizona, there is much work yet to do.”
State Sen. Russell Pearce, a Mesa Republican and the author of Arizona’s new immigration legislation, is a former top deputy under Arpaio and a supporter of the sheriff’s efforts.
“You’re not going to take away Joe Arpaio’s poster-boy image of the icon of what ought to be right in America – enforcing our laws, making our neighborhoods safer,” he said. “I’m sure he’ll still be more aggressive than others because he’s actually committed to doing this.”
Arpaio’s term as sheriff is up in two years, and his campaign committee, Re-Elect Joe Arpaio 2012, has collected nearly $2.3 million. Donations have come in from every state in the nation.
Arpaio told The Associated Press as recently as January that he planned to run for sheriff again but later danced around the subject as he contemplated the governor’s race.
Arpaio “certainly has a shrewd mind for publicity,” said Larry DeGaris, an associate professor of marketing at the University of Indianapolis. “He knows what gets press and he isn’t shy about promoting it. If politics don’t work out for him, he’s probably got a future as host of the ‘Sheriff Joe Show.'”