THE BLOG
03/27/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Mexican Gov Denounces "Toughest Sheriff in America" TV Reality Star -- Sheriff Invites Critics to Investigate Personally

PHOENIX--Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, the "Toughest Sheriff in America" and star of "Smile... You're Arrested!" reality TV show, has come under fire lately from the Mexican government, members of Congress, Arizona legislators, and local officials who contend that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) violates the civil rights of minorities and immigrants. Arpaio is firing back at his detractors, inviting the members of Congress who cast aspersions on him to personally visit Arizona to see his operations for themselves.

Mexican Consul General Carlos Flores Vizearra sent a letter on Monday to Maricopa County Supervisor Max Wilson (D-4) asking for a copy of the Maricopa County Prison Guidelines and expressing "the dismay and protest of the Mexican government regarding the treatment of Mexican citizens" by MCSO.

The letter specifically rails against a recent transfer of 220 immigrant inmates from one jail facility to another. MCSO shackled the inmates together and walked them a couple hundred yards (the length of parking lot) down a public road that is used primarily by MCSO staff. In what Arpaio says was an effort at transparency and opponents say was an effort at "ritual humiliation," the media was notified in advance of the inmates' transfer and were invited to bring their cameras and observe the transfer. In his letter to Wilson, Vizearra says,

The recent parade of over 200 inmates is the most abhorrent mockery of the dignity of prisoners to date. The highly publicized march of ethnic inmates was reminiscent of inhumane and barbaric practices that we thought were overcome in a civilized society.

Vizearra also quoted Section 45(1) of the United Nations (UN) Standard Minimum Rules for the Treatment of Prisoners, which say,

when prisoners are being removed to or from an institution, they shall be exposed to public view as little as possible, and proper safeguards shall be adopted to protect them from insult, curiosity, and publicity in any form

Arpaio said in response, simply,

I understand how to follow all the laws.

He also reminded critics that, before being elected as Maricopa County Sheriff, he served as Regional Director for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) stationed in Mexico, Latin America, Turkey, and the Middle East and served as head of the DEA in Arizona and Texas.

An MCSO spokesperson said Wednesday that even in the face of tough criticisms that Arpaio is committed to continuing to do the job he was elected to do, adding that MCSO will continue enforcing the laws that are on the books. Arpaio supporters contend that critics who are unhappy with current immigration laws should work to change the law rather than attacking a lawman they see as courageous for bucking political correctness. His critics, however, contend that MCSO operations skirt current laws or even outright break them.

Arpaio says the inmate transfer removed those who are being held on immigration violations from the general inmate population, facilitated visits by the Mexican consulate, and cut costs for MCSO. Vizearra disputes Arpaio's claim that the move facilitated consulate visits, though, saying that MCSO has limited consulate visits to three times per week and arguing that more visits are needed to corroborate complaints of inadequate jail conditions.

Arpaio, who has sky-high public approval ratings, is seen by his supporters as a tough-as-nails western lawman. But he is as controversial as he is popular, oscillating between a conservative media darling (even landing his own reality TV show) and a liberal media pariah.

For years, his hard-nosed policies have drawn fire. He is most famous for his "Tent City" jails where inmates are housed in military surplus tents in the desert to save money. He has also been criticized for serving inmates baloney sandwiches twice per day and severely limited items of comfort or amenity. MCSO inmates are shackled in pink handcuffs and wear old-fashioned striped uniforms, pink underwear, and pink flip-flops.

In response to MCSO ratcheting up immigration and smuggling enforcement during recent years, political warfare against Arpaio has become ferocious. Arpaio is unrelenting in his enforcement of immigration laws under an agreement negotiated with the Department of Homeland Security under 287(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act, which allows local law enforcement officials to investigate, apprehend, and detain people who are living or working in the U.S. without authorization.

Arpaio's harshest critics, including the members of Congress who recently called for a federal investigation of MCSO operations, believe that MCSO uses racial profiling and engages in discrimination in the course of their immigration enforcement actions.

Rep. John Conyers (D-MI), Rep. Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), Rep. Jerry Nadler (D-NY), and Rep. Bobby Scott (D-VA), sent a letter on February 12 to DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano and U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder requesting that they investigate whether MCSO has been engaging in racial profiling or violating other civil rights in the course of immigration enforcement efforts. About a week later, the Arizona Latino Legislative Caucus sent a similar request to Napolitano and Holder. Other public officials, including Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, have demanded investigations of Arpaio in recent years.

Typical of Arpaio, he is going toe-to-toe with his opponents. He sent a letter to Conyers et al. that said they had been taken in by biased media reporters and asked them to pay a visit to Arizona to see his operations for themselves:

If these out-of-state Congressmen are so concerned about what I am doing here in Maricopa County [Arizona] that they would demand a federal investigation of me, then I certainly hope they will view this invitation as a way to observe firsthand whether the allegations which prompted their request are even legitimate.

In his letter, he criticized his detractors for being taken in by false media reports:

I understand how a person can be unduly influenced by the media and stridently vocal critics whose primary aim is to misrepresent law enforcement to the community at large, with their tenuous regard for the truth.

Do not be taken in by their false cries. Instead i cordially invite you and your colleagues to see for yourselves the job my deputies are doing here in Maricopa County. Visit Tent City, talk with the inmates here, question our human smuggling team of experts and decide, independent of the media and other critics, whether we are abiding by the rule of law.

Arpaio also took the opportunity to make a swipe at others who have made similar accusations against him in the past:

You are not the first elected official to be misled by media inaccuracies, lies, and innuendo. Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, Democrat, supported by several other democrats who are his political allies, cited the same allegations and asked the former U.S. Attorney General to investigate me.

Arpaio's letter also called demands for an investigation hasty and baseless:

I was disappointed that you, the Chairman of the U.S. Judiciary Committee, relied solely on newspaper reports replete with inaccuracies. It would have been more appropriate for you to have contacted me directly or at the very least, made an independent inquiry into the validity of the media's accusations before calling for a federal investigation.

Protesters, including the lead singer of Rage Against the Machine, are planning a demonstration and march against Arpaio's controversial immigration enforcement efforts this Saturday. No word if the members of Congress who called for the investigation will be visiting Arizona or attending the rally.

Meanwhile, Napolitano will be testifying before Congress on Wednesday and will be meeting with the Congressional Hispanic Caucus (CHC) on Thursday. The CHC has taken a strong stance against the criminalization of illegal immigration and sees immigration reform as its ultimate priority.

Although Napolitano has talked mostly about employer and trafficking enforcement, activists on neither side of the immigration debate know what to expect from Napolitano on the 287(g) program. Arpaio expressed concerns that Napolitano might end the 287(g) program, but immigrant rights activists expressed concerns that Napolitano might expand the program. She recently asked her agency to review the 287(g) program, asking the following questions to be addressed:

How many officers have been trained to date? How many agreements have been signed with state and locals to date and how many are ready to be signed? What is the current turnaround time to sign an agreement and what can be done to expedite more agreements? How does this model compare in cost, effectiveness, and administration, to other forms of cooperation with these officials or entities? What are the strengths and challenges with jail model agreements versus task force model agreements?

The report was due on her desk Friday, February 20 but has not yet been released to the public.