Paul Nitze: The failings of Sheriff Joe and justice in Arizona |

Paul Nitze: The failings of Sheriff Joe and justice in Arizona

Paul Nitze
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado

Finally, the feds are saying no to Joe Arpaio. If you aren’t already acquainted with the elected sheriff of Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe and his media team want to change that. He’s become the Joe McCarthy of immigration enforcement, and every demagogue needs a bullhorn.

Arpaio staged an over-the-top press conference earlier this week in which he branded Department of Homeland Security (DHS) officials “liars” and swore to have his deputies drive illegal aliens to the border themselves if the feds won’t cooperate. What sparked the outburst? News that DHS is yanking his authority under the 287(g) program to detain any illegal alien in Maricopa County, whether they’ve committed a crime or not.

What took DHS so long? We’re now a half year out from the Justice Department’s decision to investigate illegal profiling and searches by Arpaio’s office. We’ve known for at least four years of serious concerns with Arpaio’s treatment of detainees housed in his “tent city” jails. For the same period we’ve known that Arpaio has used his authority under a program designed to identify criminal aliens to target aliens who have no criminal record.

It boggles the mind that Maricopa County voters keep re-electing this guy and that Arizona politicians refuse to butt heads with him. Even if you follow the Tom Tancredo school of thought on immigration, much of Arpaio’s behavior is beyond the pale.

Presumably the same folks who want to deport every last one of the 12 million illegal aliens in the U.S. also want to crack down on criminals whose last name isn’t Reyes or Jimenez. Well, if that’s your goal, Sheriff Joe is not your man. A devastating investigative piece that ran in the local Maricopa County paper showed that emergency response times have doubled under Arpaio, and that serious crimes are going unsolved while Arpaio focuses on his anti-immigration crusade.

And even if you’d like to detain and deport every illegal alien, the randomness of the status quo makes a mockery of fairness. To analogize, Coloradoans have recently (with some justification) gotten a bee in their bonnet about drunken driving. This follows on from a Denver Post article a few months back showing that repeat drunken drivers are given a slap on the wrist in some Colorado courtrooms.

So let’s say that you are of a mind to throw every repeat drunken driver in jail for a year. Would you feel equally comfortable with a system that throws one out of 10 repeat offenders in jail for a decade and lets the rest off with a fine? Of course not.

In practice, that’s the way our current system functions. Out of that population of 12 million undocumented immigrants, about a half million are convicted criminals. Before the 287(g) program and the Criminal Alien Program (CAP) were launched, that remaining group of 11.5 million was not subject to detention except under defined and narrow circumstances (like failing to show up for a removal hearing).

Now it’s at the whim of the local law enforcement agency. If you get stopped for speeding in Mesa, Ariz., which is inside Maricopa County, the Mesa cops aren’t going to ask about your status per Mesa police policy. But if you go to the mall outside the city limits, a stop for speeding may land you in detention, without a bond, pending removal. So much for a “federal” immigration system.

And once you’re in immigration detention, you have truly disappeared down the rabbit hole. In another hopeful sign of rationality returning to our immigration debate, DHS Secretary Janet Napolitano just finalized a set of reforms to detention policy. Finally, we’ll see a level of detention that’s commensurate with risk. Aliens with no criminal record will be kept on electronic surveillance or placed in low-security facilities.

This follows on from a stomach-turning series of articles in the Los Angeles Times, New York Times, and other papers about what it’s like to be in immigration detention these days. Even if you’re not being dehumanized by the likes of Joe Arpaio, you are worse off in immigration detention than if you’re a naturalized citizen facing murder charges.

In immigration detention you could be anywhere among a hodgepodge of federal, state and county facilities. You may or may not be mixed with the general inmate population. Your family will struggle to find you and likely won’t be able to see you even if they know where you are.

Your chances of adequate health care are virtually nil. Your chances of suffering abuse by guards are greater than in a typical county jail, because the guards in an immigration detention facility are likely to be greener and poorly supervised. And, as we’ve learned from a few dogged investigative reporters, you can die in custody and no one … will … ever … know.

Like demagogues before him, Sheriff Joe’s legacy may be inadvertent. Had he played his hand a little cooler, his deputies would still be raiding Maricopa restaurants and farms and plants today. Instead he’s become the poster boy for a couple of programs that were started with good intentions and reasonable goals, but have degraded to the point that they are truly inhumane.

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