It's tempting to write off Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio as just another right-wing hatemonger. Like the Pat Buchanans and Lou Dobbs of the world, he has a large platform, talent for exploiting the racist side of populism, and an all-consuming desire for attention.
So what sets Arpaio apart? Whether we like it or not, he's more than a blowhard. His Arizona county covers 9,000 square miles. It has a population of nearly 4 million. He has 4,000 employees and 3,000 "volunteer posse" members. And although his tactics are under investigation by the Justice Department, he continues to receive financial support from the Obama administration.
When it comes to his actions on immigration, the federal policy that empowers him is the 287(g) provision, which essentially allows local police and sheriffs to act as national-security officials. This "partnership" with the office of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) has enabled Arpaio to turn his law-enforcement bureau into a racial-profiling and immigrant-hunting unit. ICE brags that, through 287(g), local police have identified more than 100,000 "potentially removable aliens."
But in the 66 local police departments that participate in the 287(g) program, there is evidence that actual crime-fighting is suffering because of the focus on immigration enforcement. Several prominent police chiefs have called for 287(g) to be repealed. Not only does the program push them to investigate the citizenship status of every person who appears to be Hispanic, it deters undocumented immigrants from reaching out to authorities when they are victims of or witnesses to crime. Police officers' core mission may be to ensure public safety, but 287(g) sends the message that the mission doesn't extend to Hispanics. "How can you police a community that will not talk to you?" one participating police chief asks, in a report on 287(g) by the Police Foundation. And since all the time spent checking documents is time not spent on other law-enforcement priorities, everybody loses--not just the Hispanics who are profiled.
ICE officials have said the program is designed to target "serious criminal activity." But a Government Accountability Office report on 287(g) released earlier this year found that in more than half of the 29 jurisdictions it investigated, officers expressed concerns that 287(g) was being used to deport immigrants who had only committed minor crimes, such as traffic violations. Along with local advocacy groups, it called on the federal government to amend the program.
Perhaps in response to the GAO's call for stricter regulation of 287(g) partners, in July, Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano announced changes to the program that were decried both as an expansion of the program (by immigrant-rights advocates) and a limitation of it (by deportation hawks). ICE added another 11 jurisdictions to its list of partners and also a requirement that police pursue all charges on which they detain immigrants, a change designed to deter them from deporting those with minor infractions. "This new agreement supports local efforts to protect public safety by giving law enforcement the tools to identify and remove dangerous criminal aliens," Napolitano said.
She should know better. As the former governor of Arizona, Napolitano and Arpaio go way back. Arpaio, one of the most popular politicians in the state, gave Napolitano a boost when he endorsed her 2002 run for governor. And for most of her time in office, she looked the other way as he overstepped his bounds. During her final months as governor, she diverted some state funds from his office, but she never spoke out against his tactics.
In the best possible scenario -- the one that ICE touts in its press release -- 287(g) would merely enable local police to conduct screenings at jails to determine if those already in custody for serious crimes are undocumented immigrants. But Arpaio's actions are a glimpse of how 287(g), in practice, often leads to racial profiling, rather than deportation of dangerous criminals. A recent New Yorker profile of Arpaio describes him conducting raids on towns with a high percentage of Hispanic residents. And his chief of enforcement bragged to The New York Times last year that most deputies in Maricopa "can make a quick recognition on somebody's accent, how they're dressed."
The 287(g) program pushes those who are on the margins of our society even further out. But even if Napolitano doesn't care about the rights of Hispanics -- or, in Maricopa at least, brown-skinned people wearing clothing styles common in Mexico -- she should care about the crime ignored as cops conduct immigration sweeps. As long as Napolitano allows ICE to continue its partnership with jurisdictions like Arpaio's, she's jeopardizing the very security she's supposed to protect.