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'Driving While Brown' Chronicles How Latino Activists Brought Down Arizona's Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio gives a news conference in Phoenix on July 29, 2010. (Matt York/AP)
Then-Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio gives a news conference in Phoenix on July 29, 2010. (Matt York/AP)

Joe Arpaio liked to call himself America’s toughest sheriff.

For more than two decades, his many supporters cheered on the former Maricopa County sheriff’s hard-line approach to immigration in the state of Arizona. A new book called “Driving While Brown: Sheriff Arpaio Versus The Latino Resistance” charts the rise and fall of one of the most controversial sheriffs in modern memory.

“It’s interesting because most people can’t name their own sheriff, let alone somebody else’s sheriff in another county,” says journalist Jude Joffe-Block, who co-wrote the book with Terry Greene Sterling. “Yet Joe Arpaio was nationally known within a few years of his tenure.”

Elected in 1992, Arpaio served as Maricopa County’s top law enforcement official for 24 years. Early on in his time in office, he made headlines for making incarcerated people wear pink underwear, sleep outdoors in tents and eat undesirable food.

During this period, Arpaio thought focusing on immigrant workers without legal permission was a waste of time, Joffe-Block says. But then an uptick of people attempting to cross the border into Arizona sparked a movement to restrict and punish people trying to enter the state from Mexico.

State lawmakers made smuggling a person into the state a felony — a law that Arpaio “enthusiastically” enforced, she says. In 2006, law enforcement officers began stopping and arresting migrants driving in cars on felony charges for smuggling.

The national recognition Arpaio gained from immigration enforcement helped him raise money from national donors for elections, Joffe-Block says.

In 2007, through a partnership with the federal government, Arpaio started rounding up day laborers — many who were immigrants looking for work — and turning them over to U.S. Immigration Customs Enforcement for deportation, she says.

Arpaio carried out workplace raids and conducted sweeps in Latino neighborhoods. Workers without proper documentation were arrested on felony charges, jailed and turned over to ICE. And Arpaio’s deputies would swarm neighborhoods, pull over cars for minor traffic violations and arrest anyone suspected of unauthorized immigration, she says.

A federal judge agreed with U.S. citizens who alleged racial profiling, but Arpaio’s tactics didn’t stop even as his legal troubles mounted. A federal judge eventually found him in contempt of court for ignoring orders to stop racial profiling.

“Tens of thousands of immigrants wound up in ICE custody as a result of Sheriff Arpaio’s policies,” she says.

Arpaio’s immigration enforcement gained the attention of a group of activists in the state who made it their mission to get him out of office through lawsuits or the ballot box. The diverse, Latino-led coalition was composed of unauthorized immigrants, U.S. citizens, the children of immigrants and Mexican Americans whose families had lived in Arizona for generations, Joffe-Block says.

“There were moments where people who were undocumented and at risk for deportation did come out of the shadows and join the movement to protest Arpaio,” she says.

Going after Arpaio made people fearful and the coalition struggled to gain support, she says. Arpaio denies that he retaliated against his opponents, but criminal charges brought against people who went against him were thrown away.

“There was a long period in Maricopa County where he was really untouchable,” she says. “But I think it’s also important to note that for some of the people who decided to wage this fight, they weren’t at risk themselves. They were U.S. citizens, but they felt like the very principle of equality in America rested on waging this fight and bringing attention to this issue.”

Arpaio’s supporters and opponents both agree on one thing: The former sheriff is similar to former President Donald Trump. Arpaio was one of the first people to endorse Trump, and Trump later pardoned Arpaio.

“Arpaio will tell you that he did not advise the president on immigration, but we do know that Arpaio showed the country how powerful of a political tool immigration enforcement could be,” she says. “And I think that it’s very likely that Trump took note of that potency.”

Trump won the presidency in 2016, but Arpaio lost reelection the same year. Activists who fought against Arpaio were “stunned” by the 13-point landslide loss, Joffe-Block says. But at the same moment, activists realized the new president was a threat to immigrant families in the U.S.

In the Trump-era, activists in Arizona started advising other groups around the country on how to organize against unjust immigration policies, she says.

Now close to 90 years old, Arpaio’s time as sheriff showed that immigration policies can “fuel grassroots organizing that could change the political landscape,” she says.

“What we know from the Arizona lesson is that the issue of immigration can be incredibly politically powerful and it can lead to policies that are popular,” she says, “but also could risk constitutional violations, as we saw happen in Maricopa County.”


 Julia Corcoran produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd MundtAllison Hagan adapted it for the web. 

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.