03/31/2009 07:08 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Does Maricopa Mussolini's Pink Underwear Fetish Threaten National Security?

By Peter Costantini

Sheriff Joe Arpaio's apparent erotic peccadilloes would be nobody's business if he limited himself to exercising them in private with consenting adults.

But according to news reports, court cases and his own web site, Arpaio, the chief lawman of Maricopa County, Arizona, has forced undocumented immigrants who have committed no crime to wear pink underpants, paraded them through the streets in their underwear in shackles and then strip searched them, and sent women and juveniles out to work on chain gangs (voluntarily, he says). He imprisons them in old canvas tents in the 100-degree heat of Phoenix, feeds them insufficient and sometimes rotting food for which he makes them pay, and denies them urgently needed medical care.

His web site hosted a webcam of pretrial detainees, although he lost a lawsuit when 24 of the presumed innocent sued him for violating their Fourteenth Amendment due process rights.

"America's Toughest Sheriff", his publicity machine calls him.

But there's nothing tough about bullying and humiliating any prisoner - much less people jailed for suspicion of civil immigration infractions - while hiding behind a badge. His methods have little to do with law enforcement, but he could open a nice booth at a BDSM convention with them. They also smell a lot like cruel and unusual punishment, which the Eighth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution frowns upon.

Some of the problems are long-standing: "Unconstitutional conditions exist at the Jails with respect to (1) the use of excessive force against inmates and (2) deliberate indifference to inmates' serious medical needs", according to a 1999 federal audit.

And the beat goes on: the National Commission on Correctional Health Care revoked its accreditation of MCSO's detention facilities last September for failing to provide adequate health care to inmates, and a federal judge found in October that illegal conditions continue to exist in the jails, including deprivation of medical care, unsanitary food and unsanitary housing conditions. Over the past 5 years, Maricopa County has reportedly paid out more than $30 million in legal claims for prisoners, including several unlawful death cases.

Arpaio's attacks on the human rights of the people he lords it over do not make anyone safer. On the contrary, they remind the world of Abu Ghraib and GITMO. By echoing the Bush administration's widely condemned violations of human and civil rights, they risk further eroding national security.

The sheriff doesn't limit his ministrations to prisoners, either: his interpretation of the First Amendment shows a perverse creativity as well. Arpaio arrested the co-publishers of Phoenix New Times, a newspaper that had criticized him repeatedly and published his home address in a story about his real estate dealings, and ordered the paper to turn over e-mail addresses of all visitors to its web site. The case against them was later dropped and the paper is suing Arpaio and the county attorney. Another reporter accuses the sheriff's deputies of physically intimidating him to prevent him from accessing open public records.

Neither has the Fourth Amendment prohibition of unreasonable searches and seizures made a visible impression on Arpaio. Last year, he sent some 60 deputies and volunteers armed with semiautomatic weapons and dogs on a secret SWAT-like raid into the city hall and library of Mesa, a Phoenix suburb, to arrest a handful of janitors whom he believed to be undocumented immigrants. He did not notify the Mesa police or city government in advance.

The mayor of Mesa said that "the safety of our citizens was greatly compromised" by the raid, and the town police chief complained that the sheriff's sweeps were "endangering our guys."

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, in a letter to the U.S. Department of Justice, faulted Arpaio for "a pattern and practice of conduct that includes discriminatory harassment, improper stops, searches and arrests."

Criticism of the sheriff is coming not just from liberals: some Phoenix-area conservatives are leading the charge against him.

A December 2008 report by Clint Bolick for the right-libertarian Goldwater Foundation blasted the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office's record. "Although MCSO is adept at self-promotion," he wrote, "under its watch violent crime rates recently have soared ... It has diverted resources away from basic law-enforcement functions to highly publicized immigration sweeps, which are ineffective in policing illegal immigration and in reducing crime generally ... Profligate spending on those diversions helped produce a financial crisis in late 2007 that forced MCSO to curtail or reduce important law-enforcement functions."

It turns out that Arpaio is not tough at all on actual criminals. FBI statistics showed that murders in Arpaio's jurisdiction shot up 166 percent from 2004 to 2007, while violent crimes increased 69 percent. Both increases were far higher than the figures for the city of Phoenix, which is part of the county.

Meanwhile, the opportunity costs of his campaign against immigrants are increasing: while he wastes enforcement dollars on people who are clearly no threat to society, transnational drug cartels have been reportedly infiltrating Phoenix and many other cities in the U.S. with genuinely threatening criminal organizations. Phoenix police credit most of a sharp increase in kidnappings and home invasions there to the narcotraficantes.

Finally, though, this uniformed piñata for tort and human rights lawyers may have overreached. The U.S. Justice Department recently opened an investigation of his department for racial profiling and other law enforcement misdeeds. On March 10, Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King sent a letter to Arpaio informing him of an investigation focusing on "alleged patterns of discriminatory police practices and unconstitutional searches and seizures conducted by the MCSO, and on allegations of national origin discrimination"

There goes that pesky Fourteenth Amendment again, with its fine print about "equal protection of the laws". The bleeding hearts charged with enforcing it seem to think that DWL (Driving While Latino) should not be treated as a crime, even in Maricopa County.

In response to the investigation, immigrant advocates including the National Day Laborers Organizing Network called for the federal government to terminate its "287(g)" contract with the MCSO, which deputizes the local agency to enforce federal immigration laws.

"We are very hopeful a Department of Justice investigation will vindicate the rights of people who have been terrorized by Sheriff Arpaio," said Salvador Reza of PUENTE, a Phoenix community organization.

"The federal government has the obligation to reform immigration laws and to uphold the Constitution," Pablo Alvarado of the NDLON asserted. "Its failure to act has resulted in an emerging civil and human rights crisis."

Despite his growing problems, Arpaio defeated a recall attempt and was reelected last November with 55 percent of the vote. Voters in the conservative county have kept him in office since 1993, although his margin of victory has declined.

He scored a PR coup in December 2008 when Fox Reality Channel piloted a TV show created with MCSO called "Smile ... You're Under Arrest!", which suckered suspects of minor crimes into appearing on the show and then arrested them on the air. None of the three episodes in the pilot dealt with immigrants.

The sheriff's shameless publicity seeking makes it easy to dismiss him as an isolated caricature. But beneath the thuggish trappings, he is merely the vanguard of a broad trend towards criminalizing undocumented immigrants.

High-profile workplace raids by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) have caught up citizens and immigrants with legal status in their dragnets, torn apart families and communities, and driven undocumented workers further underground.

"While DHS [Department of Homeland Security] is driving immigrants from their jobs and homes," writes Tom Barry of Center for International Studies in 'The New Political Economy of Immigration', "U.S. firms in the business of providing prison beds are raking in record profits from the immigrant crackdown."

According to Barry, "There is a codependent relationship between the private prison industry and the federal government's immigration enforcement apparatus. Immigrant detention jumpstarted the two largest prison companies--Corrections Corporation of America (CCA) and GEO Group--in the prison industry."

Many city and county jails have also gotten in on the action. Together they are evolving into a "prison-industrial complex" - a cousin of President Eisenhower's "military-industrial complex". This growing lobby for more draconian laws and expanding incarceration, however, contributes nothing toward rebuilding the real economy, resolving immigration issues or making the U.S. safer.

Within this brave new profit center of immigration detention, abuse of prisoners has been systemic.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have both issued reports recently criticizing widespread violations of human rights and unjust detention without due process in what AI called "a broken and costly U.S. immigration detention system". HRW found that "ICE policies unduly deprive women of basic health services", and called the health care system for detained immigrants "perilously flawed, putting the lives and well-being of more and more people at risk each year."

As both reports point out, the great majority of immigration detainees are accused of civil violations, not crimes. Regardless of what Arpaio and his enablers may think, immigrants do not surrender their human rights at the border or at the prison door.

Related Web Sites

Re-Elect Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Overthrow Arpaio

NOW on PBS - "The People's Sheriff"

Phoenix New Times - Investigating Sheriff Joe Arpaio

Border Lines - Tom Barry's blog

Related IPS stories

RIGHTS-US: Local Police Increasingly Target Migrant Communities - by William Fisher - April 13, 2009

MIGRATION-US: Strained Detention System a Virtual Black Hole - by Marina Litvinsky - March 25, 2009

RIGHTS-US: Ill Migrants Left to Languish Behind Bars - by Ben Case - March 18, 2009

RIGHTS-US: A Double Standard on Migrants? - by Peter Costantini - Dec. 11, 2007