Obama's Line in the Sand on Immigration Enforcement

"America's toughest sheriff," Joe Arpaio, is under investigation by the Justice Department.

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Civil rights leaders and immigration reform advocates met in Washington yesterday to applaud the announcement that Joe Arpaio, the publicity-seeking sheriff whose immigration sweeps and harsh treatment of prisoners in Arizona's Maricopa County have raised eyebrows at both ends of the political spectrum, is now the subject of a Department of Justice investigation.

Arpaio received a letter earlier this week from the office of the U.S. attorney general informing him that his department, which polices a broad area including Phoenix and its suburbs, was being investigated for suspected civil rights violations, including "discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures ... [as well as] allegations of national origin discrimination."

According to civil rights experts, the investigation, one of the few times the government has ever conducted a civil rights investigation into a local police agency's immigration enforcement practices, could be a sign of things to come, as the Obama administration moves toward more comprehensive immigration reform. "It's hard to imagine this happening in the previous administration. In fact, it seemed to me that the Bush administration encouraged the Sheriff Arpaios of the nation to do what they're doing," says Kevin Johnson, dean of the University of California-Davis School of Law. "It is a signal the Obama administration is going to look a lot more carefully at the proper role for local government in immigration enforcement."

In a press conference yesterday on Capitol Hill, several powerful House Democrats—including John Conyers, chairman of the Judiciary Committee—announced that they will be holding a joint hearing to investigate Arpaio's methods. Conyers sent a letter last month urging Attorney General Eric Holder and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, the former governor of Arizona, to open an investigation of Arpaio.

"We have been living under a reign of terror in Maricopa County," Mary Rose Wilcox, the county's supervisor, who has become one of Arpaio's fiercest critics, told reporters yesterday. "When we saw that the Justice Department is taking action, we were elated."

More than 2,700 lawsuits have been filed against Arpaio since he was first elected sheriff in 1993, many of them for alleged civil rights violations, but for much of his tenure, Arpaio has embraced his reputation as a political lightning rod. Calling himself "America's toughest sheriff" and campaigning as a scourge of illegal immigrants, he has been re-elected five times, with voters largely applauding his zealous pursuit of lawbreakers. He has gained attention, in particular, for forcing prison inmates to wear pink underwear and live in outdoor "tent cities" in the Arizona desert. Arpaio has even starred in his own reality show, Smile ... You ' re Under Arrest! , in which people with outstanding warrants are lured in front of hidden cameras and arrested.

Most of the controversy surrounding Arpaio, though, has centered around his much-publicized immigration sweeps, in which his deputies raid neighborhoods and businesses—and, in one recent sweep, even a Phoenix suburb's city hall—to enforce the state's strict employer-sanctions and antismuggling laws.

Critics say the sweeps amount to little more than dozens of heavily armed deputies moving through Latino neighborhoods arresting everyone in sight. But Arpaio insists that, in the absence of a more distinct federal policy on immigration enforcement, state and local officials are authorized to fashion their own approaches to enforce immigration law. "We have nothing to hide," Arpaio said this week, denying that his deputies are illegally profiling suspects. "I am not going to be intimidated by the politics and by the Justice Department. I want the people of Arizona to know this: I will continue to enforce all the immigration laws."

Even if the Justice Department ultimately determines that Arpaio's tactics are legal, many crime experts in Arizona—on both ends of the political spectrum—have questioned whether they are effective. Immigration rights groups have condemned the sweeps as counterproductive, saying they serve only to frighten Latinos and reduce the likelihood that they will cooperate with police in the future. In December, the politically conservative Goldwater Institute also joined the growing chorus of critics concerned by Arpaio's methods. "There is no question that Sheriff Arpaio [is] 'tough' on people arrested for or convicted of crimes—and that a large majority of Maricopa County voters applaud that toughness," wrote Clint Bolick, the institute's director, in a paper analyzing the sheriff's track record. "But toughness is only one ingredient for a successful sheriff's department, and by itself is far from sufficient."