If you haven’t heard of Joe Arpaio, the sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona (which happens to be the state’s largest county, containing over half of its population), you’re either very lucky, or very unfortunate, depending on who you ask. This is because Sheriff Joe is one of the most divisive law-enforcement officials in the United States today, with supporters who believe that he is simply getting tough on crime and providing some long-overdue law and order to Maricopa County, and equally fervent opponents who argue that he has no regard for the Constitution, and is little more than a power-mad bully.
He has instituted many controversial “get tough” policies in virtually every area in which he has authority, from the county jails, to the conduct of deputies in the field. For example, he set up a tent city in the county jail, near Phoenix. Inmates have claimed that in the notoriously hot Arizona summers, the temperatures in the tents can reach up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit.
He has also brought back chain gangs. According to the linked CNN article, he also has cut food costs at the jail to 40 cents per inmate per day (compared with $1.15 per day to feed the sheriff department’s dogs). Inmates have claimed that the food they are served is often rotten and inedible. He proudly proclaims that inmates are not allowed cigarettes or coffee (granted, it may not be a terrible idea to deprive prisoners of stimulants), nor are they allowed salt, pepper, or ketchup for their food. He charges inmates $10 to see a nurse.
It should be noted that Arpaio runs a county jail, not a state prison. County jails are generally reserved for people convicted of relatively minor crimes which carry a sentence of 1 year or less. Also, some of the inmates have not actually been convicted of anything, but are unable to make bail, meaning they are held in the jail until trial.
He has also been accused of abusing his power to settle political vendettas, including harassment of the Mayor of Phoenix, and the Mesa Chief of Police, shortly after they had publicly criticized his methods.
However, his most controversial actions involve his enforcement of immigration laws. The federal government has trained 160 deputies under Arpaio’s control to enforce federal immigration laws. According to the ABA Journal, the main purpose of this program is to enlist the help of local law enforcement to identify and detain illegal immigrants who have committed serious crimes. This is certainly a legitimate government concern. According to LegalMatch case data from the last 6 months, at least one third of people facing deportations are being deported because they were convicted of a crime. It should be noted that a non-citizen immigrant can be deported for committing certain types of crimes, even if they are in the country legally.
Last year, serious concerns were raised that Sheriff Joe was using his federally-granted immigration-enforcement authority to unfairly target and harass Hispanic residents of Maricopa County, whether or not they were illegal immigrants.
In October, the Obama administration, through the Department of Homeland Security, stripped him of all authority to enforce federal immigration laws.
However, he has vowed to continue instructing his deputies to enforce federal immigration laws, without any federal mandate. He now plans to train all of his nearly 900 deputies to enforce these laws.
This raises some serious concerns about federalism, the supremacy of federal law, and states’ rights. Under the U.S. Constitution, the federal government has exclusive authority over issues of immigration and citizenship. This means that only the federal government, through federal courts, can make the determination that a person is in the country legally or illegally. It is unconstitutional for states to make that determination, and certainly for them to act on it (such as by deporting illegal immigrants).
However, if a state or local official takes it upon himself to enforce these laws, it’s not clear what the federal government could do to stop him. It would be politically (and perhaps physically) impossible to send in federal agents to physically stop all 800+ deputies from attempting to play in the federal government’s domain, even though the law might technically be on the federal government’s side in such a move.
More likely, federal immigration courts could throw out the cases against immigrants who were arrested by the Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies. This would create a disincentive for the sheriff to try to enforce federal law, since it would largely be a waste of time. After all, if the illegal immigrants are to be deported, they will eventually have to go through proceedings in federal immigration court, and even Sheriff Joe can’t change that.