The Arpaio Effect

Last week, the Department of Justice (DOJ) released a report saying that under Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s leadership, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office (MCSO) has violated the Fourth Amendment and Title VI through a consistent “pattern or practice of unconstitutional policing.”

“MCSO, through the actions of its deputies, supervisory staff, and command staff, engages in racial profiling of Latinos,” the report found. One expert quoted in the report said it was “the most egregious racial profiling in the United States that he has ever personally seen in the course of his work, observed in litigation, or reviewed in professional literature.”

No one familiar with Sheriff Arpaio will be surprised at the findings of the DOJ investigation—the self-described publicity hound’s exploits, which include making prisoners wear pink underwear and housing prisoners in tent cities, are well documented. But the fact that the DOJ called the sheriff out in a tangible way is a switch in direction for the Obama administration. With the rare exception of challenging Arizona’s “papers, please” bill, SB 1070, the president has primarily moved to expand immigration-enforcement efforts like the Secure Communities program, which enlists local law-enforcement officials in enforcing federal immigration laws.

While the MCSO inquiry began during the George W. Bush administration, its release comes at a fortuitous time for Barack Obama. With the upcoming election just months away, he is in dire need of support from Latinos and immigrant-rights advocates who, for the most part, have felt abandoned by his failure to enact comprehensive immigration reform. How will this formal and public indictment of the sheriff and his department affect those presidential candidates who have aligned themselves with Joe Arpaio, and what will it do for those who are now drawing a line in the sand?

The move is certainly a good one for the administration, but at the end of the day, Latino voters won’t be convinced to support him in 2012 on account of what is, at heart, a purely defensive move. They wanted to see comprehensive immigration reform the minute he got into office, in keeping with his campaign promises. Three years and a mess of federal immigration scandals later, it seems as though the right hand of the Department of Justice has finally discovered what the left hand of the Department of Homeland Security has been up to all these years.

“The report by the Justice Department is an indictment on Arpaio and on the Obama Administration for blindly supporting and expanding discriminatory and racist practices through immigration enforcement programs such as Secure Communities,” says Angelica Salas, executive director for the Coalition for Humane Immigrant Rights of Los Angeles.

The Department of Homeland Security also announced Thursday that it’s cutting MCSO’s access to federal immigration programs in light of the DOJ’s findings, but this may prove to be too little too late for a constituency tired of waiting. What is likely to enthuse Latino voters is that it puts the question of immigration reform—and not just immigration enforcement—back on the table where it belongs.

There’s one presidential candidate who stands to suffer most from the DOJ’s findings and that’s Rick Perry, who received the coveted official endorsement from Arpaio just a few weeks ago. Perry, who sought the sheriff’s support to shore up his tough-on-immigration image after taking heat from conservatives over his support for the DREAM Act, dismissed the report without reading it.

"I would suggest to you that these people are out after Sheriff Joe," he said. "When I'm the president of the United States, you're not going to see me going after states like Arizona or Alabama, suing sovereign states for making decisions."

While many hardline conservatives might like the idea of being tough on immigration, no one likes to feel like a racist. At the very least, no one likes to look like one. Now that the MCSO’s racist practices—which include “discriminatorily punishing Latino inmates who fail to understand commands given in English” and “failing to investigate 432 sexual assault cases”—even the staunchest conservatives are likely to object to Arpaio's methods and question their support for him.

While there are those who insist the DOJ report constitutes a smear campaign, all one has to do is read the well-documented evidence, both in the DOJ report and in the press, to know that there’s something terribly wrong happening at the MCSO. Just this Friday, a Latino inmate, Ernest M. Atencio, was rushed to the hospital after sustaining injuries while in the custody of the sheriff. He is now on life support.

This leaves Perry, once again, standing with egg on his face after a campaign full of political blunders, and Mitt Romney perfectly poised to emphasize his strengths as a moderate candidate. Hopefully no one will hold against him the fact that he, too, asked Arpaio for his endorsement last fall.

Michele Bachmann, who also made a pitch to the sheriff for his backing, calling him her “hero,” will now likely keep her distance, giving her little to distinguish herself from the other evangelical candidates.

Finally, the harsh details revealed in the DOJ’s report could make Newt Gingrich’s “humane” stance on immigration look better to voters.

Ultimately, it seems not a whole lot changes for the Republican race based on this turn of events. It still boils down to a dead heat between Romney and Gingrich. Instead, President Obama is the candidate that will benefit most from the DOJ report as it underscores the barely hidden motives of those who are so passionately concerned about “securing our borders” from “illegals.” The move gives the appearance that Obama is finally standing up for underprivileged people of color.

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