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"Sheriff Arpaio Is America's Problem"

Allie Bohm,
Policy Counsel,
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March 17, 2009

“Sheriff Arpaio is not just Arizona’s problem; Sheriff Arpaio is America’s problem. Arizona has to live with Sheriff Arpaio, but Sheriff Arpaio is America’s disgrace,” Representative Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) told a room of journalists, immigrants, and advocates at a combination rally and news conference on Wednesday, March 11. The immigrants and advocates had come from as far as Arizona, California, and Florida to deliver petitions to the Department of Homeland Security and the Department of Justice in support of the investigation of Maricopa County’s Sheriff Arpaio for civil rights violations that was announced on March 10. The 30,000 petitioners also called on the judiciary committees of Congress to hold hearings on Arpaio’s violations.

The room was locked when attendees arrived and the press conference started late, but everyone — including journalists — waited. And they were rewarded for their patience. Representatives John Conyers (D-Mich.), Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.), and Grijalva, as well as Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox and several immigrants’ rights advocates from Arizona addressed the crowd, in English and Spanish, emphasizing the atrocities committed by Arpaio and his deputies as well as the importance federal oversight in this situation.

One advocate described a college-age Latina who was pulled over for allegedly having a broken tail-light while driving home with her mother. She was made to leave her car and was interrogated and harassed. When she ultimately proved that both she and her mother were U.S. citizens, she was dismissed without a citation — because she did not have a broken tail-light. She was pulled over for driving while brown.

While advocates told stories of Latinos targeted, humiliated and mistreated for the color of their skin and of the fear that runs rampant through the Latino communities — among citizens and immigrants alike — the common thread of the press conference was federal responsibility.

The 287(g) program, the program under whose auspices Sheriff Arpaio and other law enforcement officials in 23 states across the country have been granted the authority to enforce federal immigration law, represents the failed outsourcing of federal responsibility for immigration enforcement. As Judiciary Committee Chairman Conyers pointed out, sheriffs are elected to enforce and uphold the law, and they cannot do so by interpreting the law their own ways and using racial profiling to target members of a certain community, as Sheriff Arpaio has done in Arizona. Rep. Grijalva concurred. When law enforcement agents like Arpaio use profiling, violate the civil rights of the people they have sworn to protect, isolate communities of color, and undermine the rule of law all in the name of a federal program, it becomes a federal issue.

It becomes an issue of what kind of nation we want to be. If the U.S. is to remain a nation governed by the rule of law, we cannot allow local sheriffs to make their own laws. If the U.S. is to remain a country that strives toward American values of justice, we cannot allow local sheriffs to target people based on the color of their skin. If local sheriffs are using the 287(g) program, and other similar programs, to justify horrific behavior, the federal government must reassert its authority by ending the programs. As Chairman Conyers pointed out, Sheriff Arpaio is not just a rogue sheriff. Violations of the rule of law and cases of racial profiling in the name of local immigration enforcement happen across the country, from Tennessee to North Carolina to California, and (almost) everywhere in between.

The Department of Justice’s investigation of Sheriff Arpaio is a good first step, but as Rep. Nadler emphasized, it is only a first step. Press conference attendees were gratified to hear that Congress will be taking the next step toward ending what Rep. Nadler called a “reign of terror” by local law enforcement. At the press conference, Chairman Conyers announced that the House Judiciary Committee Subcommittees on the Constitution, Civil Rights, and Civil Liberties; Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security, and International Law; and Crime, Terrorism, and Homeland Security will be holding joint hearings on local enforcement of federal immigration law. We welcome these hearings and hope that they will be a stepping stone to abolishing the 287(g) program and all programs like it.