“The Vigilante”

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

In October 2009 I published “The Vigilante,” a profile of Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, in GQ. (I later published “High Noon,” a blog entry following up on the story, included at the bottom of this page.)


Sheriff Joe’s office is a mahogany-lined cavern reminiscent of an upscale steakhouse, with wall-to-wall windows overlooking the Sonoran Desert. He’s sitting hunched over a Smith Corona when I walk in, and he motions for me to wait. America’s Toughest Sheriff is 77 years old, with an ample neck that drains into the collar of his starched blue oxford shirt and a thin slate of grey hair swept over his head. He says he’s writing a letter to the Mexican Consul General, who, the week before, had reprimanded Arpaio for his “inhumane and barbaric” treatment of Mexican inmates. (In early February, the sheriff had marched two hundred Mexicans clad in pink undershirts from a county jail to their own Tent City, one of the primitive outdoor encampments for which he is best known.)

“Why’d he have to blister me?” Arpaio mutters. “You know what it is? It’s this civil rights, all that crap.” Without looking up, he tells me to take a seat, then continues typing. The walls are crowded with framed newspaper and magazine articles detailing—and, generally, condemning—the sheriff’s exploits, from a New York Times op-ed calling him “publicity-obsessed” to a caricature from the local paper depicting him as a porcine-faced sadist. I ask how his wife of 52 years, Ava, feels about the work he does, and the public ridicule he endures. “I gotta give her a lot of credit,” he says. “If she was nagging me to come home at six every day, I wouldn’t be able to be here doing this work. So the people have to give her some credit for not nagging me.”

Lisa Allen, the sheriff’s media director and handler, materializes in the doorway, holding a clipboard. She’s disarming and alert, a former TV newswoman with a powdered face and streaked bangs. “Ready for today’s agenda, Sheriff?” she asks, then lists the morning’s interviews: Fox Radio, the Associated Press, the Arizona Republic, USA Today, CNN Radio, Channel 4, MSNBC.

“Radio or TV?” he asks.

“That one’s radio.”

“What, I’m not important enough for the TV? Nobody wants to waste their money sending the cameras down here?”

Lisa shrugs genially then disappears down the hallway, and the sheriff wonders if I have a copy of his two autobiographies, which are displayed on adjacent stands atop a side table. In the first one, America’s Toughest Sheriff: How We Can Win the War Against Crime, he laid out his policies (since no one knew him yet, he explains). Joe’s Law: America’s Toughest Sheriff Takes on Illegal Immigration, Drugs, and Everything Else That Threatens America, published last year, is “more personal.” But mostly it’s about immigration, which he warns “will speed and guarantee the reconquista of these lands, returning them to Mexico.”

I ask how we might stop that from happening.

“You can build all the fences you want, but the thing is, when they cross the border they violated the federal law,” he says. “So how do you solve it? You throw ‘em in jail! If they don’t want to steal my Tent City concept, put up some stationary buildings down there. That way they can’t work to send money back to their loved ones. Why doesn’t anybody say that?”

But do we have the resources to deploy a massive force to patrol the desert, then arrest, prosecute, and incarcerate every Mexican who crosses illegally?

“Greatest country in the world, we’re fighting wars overseas, and we can’t take care of a few people crossing that border?” he says. “Come on.”

Arpaio admits to being an “old-fashioned guy,” formed in the crucible of the 1950s and changed little since. His concerns are decidedly old-school conservative—Country, Justice, Tradition—but up until a few years ago, the border incursion wasn’t one of them. His brand was tough on crime, and he hawked it relentlessly. He forced inmates to wear pink underwear, installed the country’s first female chain gangs on suburban roadways, cruised the streets of Phoenix in a tank, and started a webcast, Jail Cam, that showed live footage of people (who had not yet been charged with anything) getting booked. The story of Sheriff Joe took on the sheen of a cable-news-age fable, alloying cowboy lore and Nixonian resentments.

But over time, the people of Phoenix became less interested in apparitional outlaws than in those of the brown-skinned variety—the ones who had crossed the desert to build their Sun Belt homes. Arpaio ran up against this fact in April of 2005, when a 24-year-old Army reservist named Patrick Haab pulled a gun on seven suspected illegal immigrants at a rest stop in the desert, forcing them to lie face-down on the ground until the sheriff’s men arrived. “You don’t go around pulling guns on people,” Arpaio said after arresting him. “Being illegal is not a serious crime. You can’t go to jail for being an illegal alien.”

Nativists did not take kindly to this position, and in a matter of days they had thrust Haab into the national spotlight. He played the hero on conservative talk shows, where he denounced Arpaio for letting the country turn into “Americo.” All charges against him were soon dropped, and a chastened Arpaio embarked on a campaign to remake his image. Within the year, he emerged as an anti-immigration crusader.

Today Arpaio says it wasn’t a matter of politics, but rather duty. “I took an oath of office to enforce all the laws, and I started doing that with immigration three years ago,” he says, referring to the state legislature passing a bill meant to protect victims of sex traffickers and predatory Mexican smugglers. After the law went into effect, though, the sheriff decided there was no reason to go after the drivers while ignoring the illegals in the car with them. He formed the Human Smuggling Unit, whose members now rove the Arizona highways stopping suspected load cars under pretexts ranging from darkened license-plate lights to overly tinted window, and if there’s any evidence that the passengers have paid for the ride, they’re charged with conspiring to smuggle themselves. After the Bush-era Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency allowed local officers to arrest anyone not caring documentation (regardless of whether they had committed a crime), he started conducting “crime suppression sweeps” in Hispanic neighborhoods. Today, there’s a Sheriff-Joe-initiated illegal immigration hotline for Phoenicians to rat out their neighbors, and the “To Protect and Serve” logo on Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office vans have been plastered over with “Help Sheriff Joe Arpaio Fight Illegal Immigration.”

Since 2007, Arpaio’s deputies have arrested 33,000 illegal aliens (only 300 of whom were picked up on “crime suppression sweeps”), but they’ve failed to catch any drug kingpins, break up any smuggling rings, or stanch the Mexican drug gang violence spilling over the border. (In fact, the sheriff’s immigration crackdown has coincided with a surge in violent crime and the accumulation of over 40,000 outstanding felony warrants.) But his grandstanding has been indulged and his stunts cheered because, after decades of immigrants pouring in across the border and the federal government sitting idly by, he was, at least, doing something. While Lou Dobbs decried the “alien invasion” from his TV studio in New York, here was a man on the front lines, standing up for the law (and against the “socio-ethnocentric special interests”); a man who, incidentally, was more than happy to go on Dobbs’ program and give credibility to his nightly barrages.

But, back inside his office, Arpaio complains that to speak only of securing the border, as many of the television pundits do, is “a cop-out.” “It’s always, We have to secure our borders first, then we’ll talk about illegal immigration,” he says. “What about those ten million that are already here? The border doesn’t do any good for them. But we don’t wanna talk about that.”

I mention recent reports that the Obama Justice Department—in response to complaints that the crime suppression sweeps amount to nothing more than racial profiling—has begun investigating his methods. “I will continue to do it,” he says. “I’m not gonna be intimidated by the new administration or by mayors here or by any other politician trying to intimidate me, including the news media. So I will do my job, I will not surrender. If they don’t like what I’m doing, change the law. I’m just enforcing the law.”

Lisa alerts us that it’s time to leave, as the sheriff has a date with the Biltmore Ladies Lunch Group, one of the nominally civic organizations he entertains each week. Arpaio puts on his blazer and we are joined by his two bodyguards, who wear matching crewcuts and polo shirts. Driving through downtown Phoenix, Arpaio tells me how successful his enforcement efforts have been. “I feel bad that they’re afraid of me, but it shows that what we’re doing is working,” he says. “If they’re afraid of the sheriff, then they should get out of town and go back to their home country. A lot of people are leaving town already.”

I ask him why he’s arrested so many immigrants who’ve come to the country to take on menial jobs, but hasn’t caught any major smugglers. “People are not getting the cases at the bottom anymore,” he tells me. “That’s all they talk about: We go after the big boys. We go after the violent illegals. Well, you know what? We were successful”—in the 70s, when he was a fed working the streets of Mexico City—”because we went after everybody. Otherwise, you lose touch with the street.”

But these are not drug dealers; they’re gardeners and dishwashers and men paid six dollars an hour to stand in the sun wearing sandwich boards. “We’re going after those that have violated laws—they are illegal,” he insists. “So we get information from them. We’re sending the message out.”

The car arrives at an upscale suburban strip mall dominated by McCormick & Schmick’s Seafood Restaurant. Arpaio is guided to a grand dining hall filled with thirty-five older white women and a few of their husbands, who applaud. Here, the sheriff is in his element, basking in the goodwill of his supporters. After the salad course, he takes the stage and begins his routine, praising the anti-human-smuggling operation and downplaying the federal investigations of racial bias. “My daughter has adopted children of various ethnicities,” he says in his defense. “I got a black, a Mexican with down syndrome even. And yet I’m the racist, I’m the fascist, I’m the Hitler!”

The ladies shake their heads sympathetically. “Why do they call him that?” one whispers.

Suddenly, he spots a pretty, young, Hispanic-looking waitress weaving between tables. “I shouldn’t ask you this,” he says, grinning mischievously, “but‬.” The waitress freezes, and the ladies all turn to face her, smiling as her face drains of its color. “Hey, how are ya? Where are you from originally?”

“Uh, Georgia. Then Florida,” she responds, a tray of empty coffee cups shaking in her hand.

“Florida!” Arpaio exclaims. “Now, I hope I didn’t violate anything by asking you where you’re from, because that’s profiling!”

The waitress looks at him blankly as the ladies laugh.

“Go around to the businesses and see who’s servicing you these days,” he continues, waving his hand to dismiss her. “Go look at McDonald’s. You’ll see different types of people working now: white teenagers. Let the illegals go back home and let the American citizens do these jobs.”


The following week, I meet Sheriff Joe at his home. He and his wife live in a plain white stucco house in the suburb of Fountain Hills, which used to be one of the largest cattle ranches in the state—before one of the designers of Disneyland molded and irrigated and mowed it into an oasis of golf courses and subdivisions and rechristened it with the motto “All that is Arizona.”

Ava answers the door, smiling and wearing black slacks and a turquoise V-neck rimmed with sparkling plastic rhinestones. Everything about her seems soft, inviting, designed to make you feel at ease, from her slight Virginia drawl to her wheat-colored hair to her face, which is the color and consistency of a lightly tanned marshmallow. She leads me toward the dining room. When they moved in seven years ago, Joe promised not to cover the place with articles about himself—they’re all hung in the garage—so the terra-cotta walls are mostly bare. A bucket of KFC is sitting on the kitchen counter, and Joe helps himself to some chicken, corn on the cob, mashed potatoes, and biscuits. “I used to make all of Joe’s Italian favorites,” Ava says as she serves me a breast, but lately the sheriff has had to rein in his appetite.

“I gotta watch it,” he laments, nodding toward his paunch. “I can’t even eat pasta anymore.”

It’s been a tough couple of weeks, with reports of the federal investigations dominating the local headlines, and I ask Joe how he’s holding up. “Well, I feel like I haven’t eaten in a week,” he jokes. “Look, I’m in the eye of the storm, I’m the poster boy. But I’ve been through this before. And I’m getting thousands of phone calls from people all over the country, backing me up.”

Ava nods her head in agreement. “Someone told me today they couldn’t even get the book on eBay anymore.”

“Joe’s Law or America’s Toughest Sheriff?” Joe asks.

“Either one.”

“They went to Amazon? That’s where you can get it. It has to be on Amazon.com.”

A bug loops around the chandelier above the table and Ava bounds up to grab the fly swatter. “Our kids had the doors open today, that’s the reason for the fly,” she says. “Maybe it came in on somebody’s shirt.”

Joe is unfazed. “You know, the timing of this is really interesting,” he says. “The bottom line is amnesty; that’s what they want. But with what’s going on now with the border violence and everything, it’s not good timing for Congress to do amnesty. People are gonna go crazy. So you think the public is gonna worry about the federal government saying I racial-profile, with everything else that’s going on?”

Things weren’t always this way. “They used to stop them from coming across the border,” Ava remembers. “I don’t think they were coming in droves like they do now, where they come in on these trucks. They get dropped off in drop houses, and then they get executed or killed by the people who brought ‘em because they can’t pay ‘em! Well, that’s not right. So, it all leads to bad things if they don’t come over the right way.”

“My wife has a point about them coming over,” Joe says. “All these people that come over, they could come with disease. There’s no control, no health checks or anything. They check fruits and vegetables, how come they don’t check people? No one talks about that! They’re all dirty. I sent out 200 inmates into the desert, they picked up 18 tons of garbage that they bring in—the baby diapers and all that. Where’s everybody who wants to preserve the desert?”

“Where’s your green people, huh?” Ava asks.

I suggest that immigration reform would help solve these problems.

“So is that gonna stop the flow?” Joe says. “They’re still gonna cross the border illegally.”

“I like Mexican people,” Ava tells me. “I don’t think anything’s wrong with them. It’s fine if they’re here legally. I never really felt prejudiced toward ‘em at all. And I lived in Mexico, too. But I was there legally! I was there legally for sure.”

At that moment Frank Sinatra’s “My Way”—the sheriff’s favorite song—starts playing from his cell phone; he grins and holds his phone aloft, letting the tinny chorus run for a few seconds before picking up. It’s time for yet another interview, this time for a Boston radio show. Arpaio pushes aside his plate of chicken bones, gets up from the table, and Ava and I follow him into his office where he sits down at his desk. The host introduces him as “a guy who’s always said what you mean and meant what you say,” then asks about the investigations.

Something clicks in the sheriff, and he enters his speaking-to-the-media zone, where monologues form seamlessly from a well of sound bites and practiced narratives. Tonight, the dial is set to “indignant defiance.”

“You know, I have nothing to hide,” he says. “They can send an army down here. I’ve been saying for years: Call the FBI if you don’t like what I’m doing. They’re gonna waste a lot of money, and come down here, and try to say that the people are in fear, that I put them in fear, because I’m enforcing the illegal immigration laws. But I’m not gonna stop. I’m not gonna back down.”

The calls pour in. One woman asks if it might be possible to deputize citizens to arrest illegals—as well as their American-born children. “It’s the anchor babies that are bleeding us dry,” she complains.

“You’re a gentleman, you live by the law,” says a man born in the same year as Arpaio. “You are a symbol of this country. And the country is losing people like you.”

“We have to follow the laws,” Arpaio tells a man calling from Massachusetts. “That’s what this country’s all about. But evidently some people don’t believe that.”

After the show is over, Joe wades into the closet, which is filled with cabinets holding records of everything he’s ever done. “I didn’t know I was going to write a book,” he shouts from the closet, “but now if they wanna doubt me, it’s all right here.” He wants to show me how much people across the country appreciate what he’s doing, so he’s looking for the file containing records of phone calls and copies of letters and e-mails from his fans.

“Here we go,” he says, emerging with a clutch of papers in his hand. Each day, his secretary logs every phone call from the public, noting the location of the caller and whether the comment counts as “Support” or “Negative.”

Arpaio reads them off: “Support, Tennessee: God Bless Joe Arpaio.” “Support, Phoenix: You’re doing a great job. Get those illegals out of the country.” “Support, Delaware: Ticked off with idiots in Congress. Keep your chin up and keep going.” “Support, Massachusetts: Those people are garbage! The illegal aliens destroyed California and we have someone who is trying to stop it so they need to leave you alone.” “Support, Oklahoma: “Atta Boy! Maybe you could teach our new administration a thing or two.”

“This is the one negative out of the whole bunch,” he says. It reads: “Let’s see how cocky that wop is in court!”

“Now you talk about racial profiling!” Ava says. “If a bust was made and it happened to be people other than Mexicans, would they say anything like that? The terrorists, a lot of these people can come through Mexico. You just never know. We’re living in a very bad time.”

“Support, Phoenix: He’s a fabulous American. So proud of MCSO.”

“Support, Mesa, Arizona: You’re the only one out there who is trying to stop illegal crime. Keep going.”

And last, from one of his neighbors:

“Support, Fountain Hills, Arizona: These anti-American activists are trying to silence you but we will not let them.”


“High Noon”

If you’re searching for a real-life, modern-day Western—with the Department of Homeland Security playing the role of the bad guy and an Arizona Sheriff playing embattled lawman—train your eyes on Phoenix today. Sometime this afternoon, Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio (who I recently profiled for GQ), will embark on a round-up of undocumented immigrants. Last week he took it upon himself to announce that the Obama administration was revoking his right to conduct such “crime-suppression sweeps,” and today he’s going rogue: The operation is a middle finger pointed straight at Washington.

Here’s how the sweeps work: Arpaio (a.k.a. America’s Toughest Sheriff) and his officers cruise the streets of Hispanic neighborhoods looking for people loitering or driving with busted tail lights or otherwise threatening public safety, inquire after their immigration status, and, if they are undocumented, detain them. Since officers can no longer haul the immigrants to one of the sheriff’s famous “Tent City” jails, Arpaio has said he’ll call the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency to pick them up. “And if they tell me to let them go,” he warns, “I guess I’ll have to transport them myself to the border.”

The made-for-TV-news spectacle was planned to coincide with the official announcement that Homeland Security is, after nearly three years, revoking Arpaio’s right to make immigration arrests (and, potentially, his right to inquire about the legal status of those arrested for other reasons). Arpaio’s sweeps are mostly symbolic, meant to instill fear and elicit media coverage more than arrests—only 300 of the 33,000 illegal aliens he’s picked up since 2007 have been caught this way. As far as stagecraft goes, today’s episode is sure to rival February’s “200 Mexican March,” when Arpaio’s deputies dragged manacled immigrants from a county jail to their own vermin-infested outdoor encampment fifteen minutes away. (“I can’t afford Hollywood actors to come down here, so I use my inmates as the actors, to get the message out,” Arpaio told me.) That bit of medieval pageantry came just weeks before the Department of Justice announced it would be launching a probe into the MCSO’s alleged racial-profiling.

I was with Arpaio in Phoenix when the DOJ investigation was making headlines, and he defended himself and the tactics of his deputies nonchalantly. “I have an old-fashioned philosophy that if you stop cars, you never know what you’ll find,” he said. He wasn’t too worried about the whole affair, and was even relishing the media coverage, giving up to fifteen interviews a day. “You think I’m worried about it?” he asked me. “I spent thirty years with the Justice Department [as a DEA agent]. Usually it takes them ten years to even open up a letter! Anyway, if I don’t like what they come up with, I’m going to take them to court and we’ll sue them.”

So far the Obama administration hasn’t given Arpaio much reason to be concerned. Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano ingratiated herself to the sheriff when she was governor of Arizona, and she’s still strongly supportive of the 287(g) program, which enables the MCSO (and over 60 other sheriff’s offices across the country) to go after illegal immigrants. She has ignored the growing choir of complaints that the program facilitates civil-rights abuses and alienates Hispanic populations, which in turn diminishes their willingness to cooperate with the police. And according to sources with knowledge of the DOJ investigation, little is expected to come of it beyond a civil complaint, which would merely be the starting point for a lawsuit that could go on for years.

What does all this mean for the coming debate on immigration, which, after a prolonged absence from the headlines, has begun to rear its head again? At a major rally for immigration reform at the Capitol on Tuesday, Illinois Congressman Luis Gutierrez outlined a bill premised around the idea that “if you are here to work hard—if you are here to make a better life for your family—you will have the opportunity to earn your citizenship.” This is what Arpaio and other so-called nativists—Lou Dobbs and Glenn Beck among them—deride as “amnesty,” a blanket abnegation of law and order that will end in the loss of our national identity or worse: a reconquista of the southwest by Mexicans.

A number of people who have attended White House meetings on immigration in the past year have suggested to me that Obama harbors some fear that the coming debate may be even worse than the healthcare fracas, exacerbating the same political divisions in addition to stoking racial resentments. By enduring criticism from the left and refusing to rein in Arpaio or cancel the 287(g) program entirely, the administration is inoculating itself against attacks on its law-enforcement credentials and laying the groundwork for more moderate legislation.

But given the vitriol of this summer, it’s hard to believe that anything Obama does will stop the teabaggers from storming the Capitol again. Most Americans are in favor of a policy that would give immigrants who are already living in the U.S. the right to legalize their status; most of them even think that immigration is good for the country. But of course, most Americans also enthusiastically supported healthcare reform four months ago, before Obama was effectively smeared as a bank-breaking, grandma-euthanizing, Stalin-loving terror.

Chances are that Sheriff Arpaio’s stunt today will further burnish his renegade image in the minds of the teabaggers and teabag sympathizers. Openly flouting the White House is the best thing he can do to endear himself to Fox News and its minions. So come this winter or spring, don’t be surprised if conservative protesters are hoisting signs plastered with images of Sheriff Joe’s visage. As he told me, “It’s not good timing for Congress to do amnesty. People are gonna go crazy.”