Crackdown inspired by toughest sheriff in US

By David Usborne
Sunday 23 October 2011 09:06

Hispanics in Phoenix, Arizona, live on the patch of a man they call the "toughest sheriff in America", who, in his own way, has already been implementing many of the measures now contained in the new, state-wide immigration Bill.

He is Joe Arpaio, and stands as a symbol of what mortifies so many people about the new law – he is under investigation by the Justice Department for alleged civil rights abuses – and of the reasons it passed in the first place. And why the Governor, Janet Brewer, signed it. That's because Mr Arpaio, 77, does better with the voters the harsher he plays it. In November 2008 he was elected to serve as county sheriff for the fifth time.

In his first terms in office, Mr Arpaio was not focused on illegal immigration so much as crime generally. He rose to national prominence by opening his now infamous "tent city" prison in Phoenix, which remains in business today and was toured by this reporter last summer. Inmates boil under the canvas of army surplus tents, wear pink underclothes and sleep on pink sheets. Some work on chain gangs.

By turning his focus on illegal immigration, he has made himself more, not less, popular at the Phoenix ballot box. The Mayor, Philip Gordon, told The Independent of Mr Arpaio's "reign of terror" over the city with frequent, so-called "crime suppression" sweeps, which always seem to happen in the most Hispanic parts of town. Even a broken brake light is enough for Mr Arpaio's men to demand legal documentation.

Mr Arpaio acknowledged his tactics had meant that some Hispanics had become afraid even to go to church. But that was what he wanted. By his own calculation, he and his deputies had managed to drive as many as half of all the illegal immigrants out of the city. The Justice Department could go hang.

Mr Arpaio is not universally loved, but it is his political success that informed Governor Brewer when she signed the bill into law last week. She faces a tough primary race to remain in her job. But the sudden backlash may force the federal government to pass comprehensive immigration reform, with a form of amnesty for illegals already in the US. That would finally send Mr Arpaio into retirement.

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