04/11/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

"Poster Boy" Of Immigration Enforcement To Be Investigated, Says He Should Be Commended

PHOENIX -- The Department of Justice is investigating "America's Toughest Sheriff." Acting Assistant Attorney General Loretta King sent a letter Tuesday to Sheriff Joe "Tent City" Arpaio, informing him that the Special Litigation Section of the DOJ has opened an investigation into allegations that the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) may have engaged in civil rights violations -- including national origin discrimination and unconstitutional searches and seizures. Arpaio gave Huffington Post an exclusive interview yesterday.

An embattled Arpaio has been the target of escalating complaints in recent months over to controversial policies and practices. Inmates in Maricopa County jails are shackled in pink handcuffs and clad in old-fashioned striped jail uniforms, pink underwear, and pink flip flops. Many live outdoors within Arpaio's famous "Tent City" jails.

MCSO's most controversial practices, though, are related to Arpaio's 287(g) agreement with the Department of Homeland Security, which gives local and state law enforcement agencies, like MCSO, the ability to conduct immigration investigations and detain immigrants who are living or working in the country illegally.

Two weeks ago, several members of Congress and the Arizona legislature sent a letter to Attorney General Eric Holder asking the DOJ to investigate MCSO policies and practices on the grounds that MCSO is allegedly engaging in racial profiling. Mexican Consul General Carlos Flores Vizcarra also sent a letter to the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors with similar complaints. Last year Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon, Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, and several immigrant rights groups also called for the DOJ to investigate Arpaio on the same grounds.

Not only does Arpaio adamantly state that his officers do not use racial profiling, he asserts that his staff is better trained than any of their counterparts across the country. "I should be commended for having my deputies trained by the federal government not to conduct racial profiling," says Arpaio. "I welcome their investigation."

The letter is surprisingly friendly considering that it announces a federal investigation of possible civil rights violations:

We believe that you and other MCSO officials want to operate the MCSO consistent with the requirements of the Constitution and federal law. During the course of our investigation, we will consider all relevant information, particularly the efforts the MCSO has undertaken to ensure compliance with federal law. We also will offer to provide recommendations on ways to improve practices and procedures, as appropriate.

Provided that the MCSO cooperates fully with our investigation, if we conclude that there are not systemic violations of constitutional or other federal rights, we will notify you that we are closing the investigation. If, on the other hand, we conclude there are such violations, we will inform you of the findings and attempt to work with the MCSO to remedy any such violations. In addition, we will identify any financial, technical, or other assistance the United States may be able to provide to assist the MCSO in correcting the identified deficiencies.

As far as investigations go, this one seems almost amenable. Even so, Arpaio vows to stand firm if he disagrees with DOJ recommendations, even battling it out in court if necessary.

Arpaio also maintains that allegations against him really stem from Democratic opposition to immigration laws. "They want to make me the poster boy for cracking down on immigration, especially 287(g), which they hate," complains Arpaio. "Everyone who asked for an investigation is a Democrat. Not a single Republican has spoken out against me. They have a new administration and feel they can take me down."

Indeed, a few thousand anti-Arpaio protesters marched through Phoenix last weekend demanding that DHS rescind all 287(g) agreements. America's Voice was scheduled to deliver a petition Wednesday to the DOJ with more than 38,000 signatures demanding an investigation of Arpaio. After the investigation was announced Tuesday, Wednesday's demonstration was transformed into a celebration. Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, who traveled to Washington, DC for the event, said, "we have been living under a reign of terror in Maricopa County. When we saw that the Justice Department is taking action, we were elated."

Not so fast, though, Arpaio chides, "I was Regional Director of the DEA in Mexico City. I was a federal agent in Turkey. I was head of the DEA in Arizona... I know the law. I follow all the laws. And I will enforce all the laws -- both state and federal." He says that "the only way to stop immigration enforcement is to get rid of me. As long as the law backs me, I will enforce it."

He says that the media will not talk about his 30 years of federal law enforcement because of the credibility it gives him.

Many of his detractors, though, do aim to change the law. Immigrant rights groups have formed coalitions to fight 287(g) agreements across the country, and they are lobbying members of Congress for comprehensive immigration reform. Nevertheless, Arpaio does not see that happening in the near future. "The public is behind me. They always have been, and they always will be," he says.

In response to Mexican Consul Vizcarra, Arpaio struck back:

For years Flores and I have had a good working relationship. I even
extended special visitation status to his staff to ease their ability to communicate with incarcerated Mexican citizens. As of today, I am rescinding those favors.

While critics decry Arpaio's antics as media stunts, Arpaio is right about having public support for his escapades. His public approval ratings have been consistently high over his 17 years as sheriff. Arpaio is a beloved figure in conservative circles and somewhat of a folk hero among immigration control activists, but his is the bane of liberal activists.

While pointing out that only Democrats are attacking him, he also bemoans the silence of Arizona Republicans in the face of partisan attacks. "Where is the Arizona Congressional delegation?" he asks. "Why haven't they come out in support or against me?"

When asked if he was considering parlaying his popularity into a higher office, he quipped, "I don't want McCain's seat even though I could beat him. I don't want to run for Congress. But you never know, things could change."

After a little banter about his intentions, he added another waggish riposte,

In November, I was asked if this would be my last campaign, and I said, 'No, it will not be my last campaign,' but I did not say campaign for what. I will definitely run for sheriff again... if I don't make any other decision.

Arpaio has been accused of a lot of things, but I don't think he's ever been accused of lacking a sense of humor.

While Arpaio has expressed confidence that he will be cleared of wrongdoing in the DOJ investigation, rally-goers and organizers are equally confident that the DOJ will find evidence of civil rights abuses.

When I asked if there is anything Arpaio would like his detractors to know about him, he posed a question for them instead. Aggrieved, Arpaio demanded, "how can they call me Nazi or Hitler or any of these racist names?"

He wants his detractors to know, he says, that his parents immigrated to this country and that his family is multicultural. He lived in Mexico City for several years. I asked him why he thinks his opponents call him a racist, and he responded simply: "Because that's the only out they have."

His opponents, I am sure, would beg to differ.

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