While Senate leaders, including Arizona's John McCain and Jeff Flake, hammered out immigration reform details last month, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio reminded the nation how rogue law enforcement can still undercut legislative efforts for a pathway to citizenship.
In a demonstration of his notorious intimidation tactics, Arapio's deputies raided three Phoenix-area taco shops and arrested 11 undocumented immigrants on March 14th.
The anti-immigrant raid took place only days after an internal-affairs report found Arpaio's office had bungled hundreds of sex-crime cases. It wasn't an isolated event.
A herculean Respect Arizona recall movement is afoot in Arizona that should serve as a wake-up call for today's immigration debate: Should extremists like Arpaio be able to effectively determine policy on the ground level, by claiming border security is threatened by the kitchen staff "of the greatest carne asada in the Valley?" Should it be a crime for hard-working people to serve food and wash dishes at America's Taco Shop?
Or, is it time for the 20-year reign of terror by Sheriff Arpaio to come to an end?
In the face of a watershed shift in national views on immigration, Arpaio's dragnet flaunted what former Assistant Attorney General Thomas Perez found to be "a pattern or practice of unconstitutional police action," in a 2011 Department of Justice investigation of Arpaio's operations. One DOJ conclusion: Latino drivers in Arpaio's county are five to nine times more likely to be stopped and searched by the sheriff's deputies than non-Latinos.
As immigration reform finally comes to Washington, Arizona is reaching a moment of truth with Sheriff Joe.
Outside money and extremist interests, not Maricopa County residents, made sure the 80-year-old Arpaio was reelected last fall with 51.5 percent of the vote, thanks to a $8 million war chest and media campaign bankrolled by out-of-county interests that have given the sheriff's extremists views a national platform -- and an enduring legacy.
Many critics describe Arpaio as a throwback to Eugene "Bull" Connor, the onetime Klansman and public safety commissioner in Birmingham, Alabama, who unleashed police dogs and fire hoses on activists, including children, and arrested civil rights leaders during some of the bloodiest episodes in that period.
The comparison with Arpaio ends there. Once Connor's brutal tactics appeared on the evening news, it affected the conscience of enough people in the nation to shift the discussion on civil rights laws and instigate federal intervention. Connor himself was out of a job within a year of the bloody summer of 1963 in Birmingham.
Why hasn't the nation done the same with Arpaio?
Marketed as "America's toughest sheriff," Arpaio first drew national attention in 1993 for his use of chain gangs and deprivation tactics in his "Tent City," subjecting prisoners to 120-degree summer weather. Arpaio has been under investigation by the Justice Department for racial profiling and abuses, including detention deaths, in a lawsuit hailed as an "abuse-of-power case involving a sheriff and sheriff's office that disregarded the Constitution, ignored sound police practices, compromised public safety and did not hesitate to retaliate against perceived critics."
Yet, with his Massachusetts-accented folksiness, Arpaio -- unlike Connor -- has become a bestselling author and even more popular TV celebrity with virtually every sordid allegation. Arpaio has manipulated the media for his own gains, while, in the business of news entertainment, he has been coddled as the harmless caricature of a frontier sheriff.
Check out these two important film documentaries on the reality of Arpaio's policies: Two Americans, by Daniel DeVivo and Valeria Fernández, currently touring nationally:
And Under Arpaio, by Jason Michael Aragón:
It's time for the frontier sheriff to confront a historical Arizonan showdown: The recall.
A growing movement of law enforcement officials agrees.
"The people of Arizona understand this perfectly well, and they are determined to protect their government against the corrupt processes that have scandalized and now dominate so many States of the Union, and which so strongly influence Congress itself," Oklahoma Sen. Robert Owen recounted in his 1911 filibuster on Arizona's statehood.
There was only one solution to counter too much outside money in politics, and it was contained in the Arizona constitution: the right to recall public officials, as Owen noted, would "put the political boss and the political machine out of business; it has ended private graft... buying of votes, the coercing of votes... It has made legislative and administrative officers responsive to the public will."
The recall of corrupt officials has defined Arizona since statehood in 1912, especially when it comes to immigration matters.
In 1972, Arizona native Cesar Chavez led the United Farm Workers in their historic "si se puede" recall campaign of Gov. John "Jack" Williams, who had signed a punitive bill against migrant workers. Along with a "fast for love," Chavez and his shock troops gathered over 175,000 signatures in an effort to "reach the hearts of those men, so that they will understand that we too have rights and we're not here to destroy, because we're not destroyers, we're builders." While the Hunt recall was derailed into the courts, the new ranks of voters led to the election of the first Mexican American governor in 1974.
Defying all expectations, an extraordinary citizens campaign in 2011 led the recall of state Senate President Russell Pearce, the self-proclaimed "Tea Party President" and architect of Arizona's controversial SB 1070 immigration law.
Similarly ambitious in scope, the Respect Arizona campaign in Maricopa County is now on track to collect 335,000 valid signatures by May 30th to bring a recall election of Arpaio.
It deserves as much support as possible.
Check out Respect Arizona for how you can help.
As Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. reminded the nation from Connor's Birmingham jail,"injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere."
Immigration reform, in fact, must include Arpaio in Maricopa County.
Author of State Out of the Union: Arizona and the Final Showdown Over the American Dream, Jeff Biggers can be followed on Twitter @jeffrbiggers