'America's Toughest Sheriff' Takes on Immigration Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Phoenix utilizes extreme tactics, like pink underwear for inmates and charging individuals with smuggling themselves, to discourage crime and root out illegal immigrants. Although some say he's a repressive "clown," most voters back him wholeheartedly.

'America's Toughest Sheriff' Takes on Immigration

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Illegal immigrants may be flowing into much of the nation, but they're apparently fleeing Arizona. In fact, legal immigrants are leaving the state, too. Arizona has passed a series of laws restricting services and making it tougher to find jobs. So over the next three days, we're going to introduce you to three Arizona men influencing the debate over illegal immigration. One makes the laws, one is fighting those laws. We start with a man enforcing the laws at all costs.

Sheriff JOE ARPAIO (Maricopa County Sheriff): These demonstrators I've caught - to have placards, I'm a Nazi, KKK - but you know what, the more they go after me, the more I go in their face.

INSKEEP: Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County is dubbed America's Toughest Sheriff. NPR's Ted Robbins has his story.

TED ROBBINS: If you want to know the man his fans call Sheriff Joe, you might want to start at one of his jails, the place called Tent City. It's Joe Arpaio's most famous invention, a vast, open-air annex in south Phoenix that houses 2,000 prisoners. They live outside, sleeping on cots in hundreds of old canvas tents, in the broiling summer heat and the chilly desert winter. It looks like a Korean War-era Army camp. The idea is to make life tough and humiliating. Inmate Steven Pleasant(ph) models the sheriff's fashion creation, a black-and-white striped uniform usually worn over pink underwear.

Mr. STEVEN PLEASANT (Inmate at Tent City): Yeah, you've got pink thermals and black striped…

Unidentified male #1: Actually we're short on the thermals, we don't have any thermals yet. At 5 in the morning, we'll be there getting our bottoms.

ROBBINS: For food, the sheriff serves inmates green, as in fetid, bologna sandwiches. Sheriff Joe Arpaio's policies are either innovative or a throwback to harsher times. Either way, his tactics and his colorful personality have kept him in the news pretty much since he took office in 1993.

Sheriff ARPAIO: Everything I do is publicized. When I go to the toilet, they publicize it. You do know that. So, I'm being a little sarcastic, but it shows whatever I do, they pretty well publicize it, especially if it's controversial.

ROBBINS: What the sheriff doesn't say is that he often seeks that publicity, even calling a news conference recently in a central Phoenix parking lot to announce ahead of time a crime-suppression operation.

Sheriff ARPAIO: I want everybody to know about this. Maybe they won't be violating the laws if they knew that we're going to catch them.

ROBBINS: He says it's to catch all criminals, but the headline on the sheriff's news release narrows it down a bit. It says illegal immigrant arrests expected. Illegal immigrants are Joe Arpaio's latest target, especially in this neighborhood. For months, it's been the sight of protests over day laborers, often illegal immigrants, who line the streets looking for work.

Sheriff ARPAIO: If we come across any illegal aliens during the course of this operation, they will be arrested and put in jail.

ROBBINS: Arrested using another of the sheriff's innovations. He's taken a state law intended for human smugglers and used it to arrest any illegal immigrant for smuggling themselves. His is the only agency in the state using the law that way.

Ms. AMY COON (Sheriff's Deputy, Maricopa County, Arizona): Juan.

ROBBINS: Down at the county jail, which houses prisoners from a number of jurisdictions in the Phoenix area, Arpaio employs one more tactic. When someone is booked on any charge, they are taken to a row of computers hooked into the Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement, or ICE, database.

Ms. COON: What's the first three of your social security?

Unidentified Male #2: (unintelligible) six - O - one.

Ms. COON: Of what country are you a national or citizen of?

Unidentified Male #2: United States.

ROBBINS: Sheriff's Deputy Amy Coon is one of 160 Maricopa County Sheriff's deputies trained to enforce federal immigration law. The sheriff says since last May, more than 7,000 illegal immigrants have been detained for ICE this way. According to the agreement with ICE, prisoners are only supposed to be held on immigration charges if they were arrested for something else first. But on this night, at least one illegal immigrant was arrested for simply being a passenger in a car that was stopped. Arpaio justifies his practices.

Sheriff ARPAIO: We put the holds on them so they won't be released back to the streets. We do that since the cops will not do it.

ROBBINS: That was a dig at the Phoenix Police Department, which has a policy of not asking citizenship on arrest - an immigrant-friendly policy now under review because public opinion has turned against immigrants. And if there's one thing Sheriff Joe Arpaio is sensitive to, it's public opinion. Michael Lacey is executive editor of Phoenix New Times, an alternative weekly paper. He says the sheriff wasn't always so gung-ho on arresting illegal immigrants.

Mr. MICHAEL LACEY (Executive editor, Phoenix New Times): He's got a very famous quote about he wasn't gonna be busting corn vendors or getting Mexicans out on the street looking for work, and that there were real criminals out there. But he discovered that there were votes in going after Mexicans, and he switched his policy 180 degrees.

ROBBINS: New Times may be the only media outlet Arpaio won't talk to.

Sheriff ARPAIO: What's the New - is that that porno magazine you're talk - the weekly paper they have to give away free?

ROBBINS: It's the paper that has relentlessly attacked the sheriff's policies for years, pointing out millions of dollars the county has paid to former inmates or their families over mistreatment charges and publishing the sheriff's home address for a story on his real estate deals. That got Lacey and his co-publisher arrested last fall along with an order to hand over the e-mail addresses of everyone who visited the paper's Web site. The order and the charges were dropped. Lacey and New Times are suing the sheriff and the county attorney.

Mr. LACEY: What made them think they could get away with it is because they have been gradually getting away with it for years here. Okay. You begin with prisoners. Okay. Then you move on to Mexicans, then you move on to editors and reporters.

ROBBINS: Arpaio's opponents, like civil rights activist and former Democratic state legislature Alfredo Gutierrez, say Joe Arpaio is out of control.

Mr. ALFREDO GUTIERREZ (Civil Rights Activist): This sheriff is a sad clown but unfortunately, he's a sad clown with horrible power.

ROBBINS: But listen to one of the speeches he frequently gives, weaving his personal story with the issues, and you can see why Joe Arpaio keeps getting re-elected.

Sheriff ARPAIO: Born and raised in Springfield, Massachusetts, my mother and father came from Italy - legally.

(Soundbite of laughter and applause)

ROBBINS: This is the community center at Leisure World, a retirement community in conservative Mesa. And Joe Arpaio, himself 75 years old, is tapped into his audience.

Sheriff ARPAIO: We don't train our officers to speak Spanish to talk to them. They're in the United States of America, and they're in my jail, so they're gonna learn English.

(Soundbite of applause)

ROBBINS: These are the people who re-elect this sheriff, voters like Betty Wilson and Donna Kurr.

Ms. BETTY WILSON (Arpaio supporter and resident at Leisure World, Mesa, Arizona): I think he's wonderful. He's tough and puts those kids in jail.

Ms. DONNA KURR (Arpaio supporter and resident at Leisure World, Mesa, Arizona): I think he's just down to earth and doing what he really needs to do.

ROBBINS: Sheriff Joe's approval ratings have been falling a bit, down from an astronomical 80 percent to somewhere in the 60s. But most analysts think he'll probably get elected for the fifth time in November.

Ted Robbins, NPR News.

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