Image: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio
Jean-Loup Sense  /  AFP - Getty Images file
In this file photo, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio sits behind his desk next to a sign for the Tent City prison camp with a vacancy sign. Among the rules for inmates there are hard labor, haircuts, bologna sandwiches, pink underwear and no smoking or coffee.
updated 4/25/2008 3:58:42 PM ET 2008-04-25T19:58:42

The self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" has been making forays into Phoenix and nearby Guadalupe and sweeping up illegal immigrants, drawing howls of protest from the cities' mayors and other community leaders.

While Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has legal authority to enforce the law in cities within his county, politicians and activists are accusing him of grandstanding and, worse, racial profiling.

A total of 150 people — 73 of them illegal immigrants — were arrested by Arpaio's deputies in the raids on heavily Hispanic sections in late March and early April.

"I was upset. We did not request them here," said Guadalupe Mayor Rebecca Jimenez, who charged that the patrols were meant to raise Arpaio's profile for his re-election campaign this year.

Guadalupe, a community of about 6,000 people that relies on the sheriff's office for police protection, is taking steps to find another department to patrol its streets.

Racial profiling alleged
As for Phoenix, Mayor Phil Gordon said Arpaio should be concentrating on more pressing duties such as finding people with warrants against them, and he has asked for a federal civil rights investigation, complaining the sheriff is singling out people who are "driving with a broken taillight or have brown skin." The U.S. Justice Department refused to comment.

And in Mesa, Arizona's third-largest city, the police chief has requested two days' notice of any sweeps Arpaio might conduct there, so that his officers can be prepared for any unrest.

Arpaio has long had a reputation for in-your-face tactics. He is known for making jail inmates wear pink underwear, assigning them to old-style chain gangs, and serving them green bologna sandwiches.

He began pushing the boundaries on immigration three years ago when he set up a special unit to deal with people sneaking across the border. Since then, his office has arrested 900 illegal immigrants under a state human smuggling law and set up a hot line for reporting immigration violations.

Arpaio said the recent sweeps were prompted in part by business owners' complaints about crime among illegal immigrants.

"It isn't racial profiling," the sheriff said. "We don't arrest just anybody on a street corner."

He said the 150 people arrested were approached or pulled over in traffic stops because deputies had probable cause to believe they had committed crimes. It was only afterward that deputies found nearly half were illegal immigrants, the sheriff said.

Crackdown sparking debate
The crackdowns have led to demonstrations by protesters on both sides of the immigration debate.

Opponents lined streets in Guadalupe earlier this month, honking horns and holding up signs with slogans such as "Arpaio Stop Using Guadalupe!" One vehicle had "Proud to Be Brown" written on one of its windows.

Alex Rivera, an American-born landscaper living in Guadalupe, said that during the crackdown there, he saw a Hispanic driver get pulled over twice by deputies.

"It made me angry," Rivera said. "If they let him go once, it gives you the point that he didn't do anything or he didn't have anything. So they let him go once. And then they pulled him over? Of course, the guy looked totally Hispanic."

Civil rights advocates said Arpaio is spreading fear among Hispanics, illegal or not. "You have cooks, landscapers, nannies afraid to drive," said Hector Yturralde, president of the group Somos America.

Some praise efforts
Still, many others in Arizona are frustrated over the flow of illegal immigrants across the border, and the sheriff has received hundreds of letters of support, along with a request from a group of state lawmakers to go into Mesa. (Arpaio said he is planning a sweep in Mesa but is reluctant to warn the police department there for fear the chief will tip off the community and stir up demonstrations.)

Judith Bederka, a retired postal worker from Mesa, said Arpaio is the only local official doing something about illegal immigration. "He is doing what everybody wants him to do," Bederka said.

The U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency said the sheriff has stayed within the bounds of an agreement that gave special immigration training and powers to 160 of his officers. The agency said it knows of no abuses by Arpaio's office.

Weeks after the crackdown, 20 Spanish-speaking day laborers gathered at a dusty intersection to wait for people to offer them work. Ramon Arajon Contreras, a laborer from Mexico who has lived in Guadalupe for eight years, said the sweep frightened him so much that he hid out in his house until it was over. He said he is still afraid.

"If I see immigration officers," he said, "it's like I see the devil."

Copyright 2008 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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