Authors’ note: Joe Arpaio, the man once known as America’s Toughest Sheriff, gained international fame for his immigration enforcement crackdowns in Maricopa County, Arizona. In the 1990s, Arpaio first drew media attention for forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and sleep in tents. He began an unprecedented local crackdown against unauthorized immigrants in 2006, amid building anti-immigrant animus in Arizona. A Latino-led resistance rose up against Arpaio on the streets, in the public square, and in the courts. Federal courts later found Arpaio’s sweeps and immigration-themed traffic stops had discriminated against Latino motorists and resulted in wrongful detentions and deportations. Sometimes, Arpaio’s tactics separated families permanently. In response to critics, Arpaio always denied that he preyed on immigrants to please his base of conservative white voters. He often noted that he himself was the son of an immigrant. His Italian father came to the United States in 1923—during a cycle of intense anti-immigrant animus. As a kid, Arpaio was teased and taunted for his Italian DNA. This chapter from the new book, Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance (University of California Press), by Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block, explores Arpaio’s early years and the forces that shaped the son of an immigrant into the nation’s most famous immigration enforcer.
He didn’t talk about it.
Ciro Arpaio never said why he abandoned his red-roofed village cloistered in the hills of southern Italy, and the people he loved.
Or at least that’s what his son, Joe, told us years later, when he was an old man and couldn’t remember much about what his father told him. Or chose not to.
But there were plenty of reasons tens of thousands of poor Italians like Ciro wanted to come to the United States. Italy was adjusting to the aftereffects of World War I—new borders, economic and social shifts, explosive nationalism, and a volatile authoritarian prime minister, Benito Mussolini. Whatever his motive, in 1923 Ciro jumped aboard the Presidente Wilson, a workhorse steamer that shuttled Italian immigrants to the United States of America. Ciro was 22 years old.
The Presidente Wilson wasn’t designed to slice through the Atlantic full throttle, panting acrid smoke.
But the Presidente Wilson had to beat ten other immigrant ships to New York Harbor. If it didn’t, the passengers aboard might be deported back to Italy due to restrictive immigration quotas for southern and eastern European immigrants considered undesirables.
Luckily for Ciro Arpaio, on July 1, 1923 the Presidente Wilson beat the ten other ships in transit and was the first in line for immigration processing at Ellis Island. The ship’s victory rated a front-page article in The New York Times, sharing space with a story about contractors needing more migrant workers and a piece on the Ku Klux Klan, a powerful white supremacist, anti-immigrant group that had gone mainstream in recent years.
When the Presidente Wilson arrived in New York Harbor, the foreign-born made up close to 13 percent of the population in the United States—near the all-time peak. Many Americans felt crowded and anxious. Italian immigrants and other immigrants from southern and eastern Europe had long been viewed as criminally inclined, disease-spreading, job-stealing, shifty, swarthy-skinned invaders.
President Warren Harding had tapped into this animus when he signed the 1921 Emergency Quota Act. The law severely restricted immigration from southern and eastern Europe and was followed in 1924 by an even more restrictive immigration quota law.
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These laws were stoked in part by the nation’s embrace of eugenics, a popular “science” that fused Victorian anthropology with white supremacy. Eugenicists believed northern and western European Protestants, along with their descendants in the United States, belonged to the most advanced race of human beings on earth. They feared eastern and southern European immigrants, like Italians, might mongrelize and diminish what they considered the superior race.
Influential American eugenicists lobbied hard for immigration restriction, earning the name “restrictionists,” a term that would be revived in the twenty-first century, when the foreign-born again occupied over 13 percent of the American population.
After Ciro, a short, thickset man with determined eyes and wavy dark hair, was processed on Ellis Island, he eventually settled in Springfield, an industrial town on the Connecticut River in western Massachusetts. He dabbled in door-to-door sales, then got into the grocery business. Within a few years, he co-owned a grocery store called Del Vecchio and Arpaio Wholesale Italian Grocers.
He likely met Josephine Marinaro, the daughter of the publisher of Springfield’s Italian language newspaper L’Eco della Nuova England, when he placed grocery ads in the newspaper.
Josephine had immigrated from Italy at the age of three with her family. When she met Ciro, she was a kindergarten teacher—and a solid woman with dark hair and eyes, a broad nose, and thin lips. Ciro probably seemed to be a good provider. Even as the Great Depression destroyed other men, he prospered in the grocery business. The two married in 1931, when Josephine was twenty-two and Ciro was thirty. A year later, their son, Joseph Michael Arpaio, was born.
Nine days later, Josephine died. The Springfield City Clerk listed post-childbirth pulmonary edema as the cause of Josephine’s death. A Springfield newspaper reported her demise as “sudden.”
After living with his maternal grandparents for three years, young Arpaio and his father moved to a small apartment on the second floor of a house on Cedar Street, right across from the Springfield Cemetery. A housewife on the first floor watched over Joe while his father toiled away at the grocery store. At night, Ciro came home so exhausted he fell asleep in his chair, ignoring his son.
The immigrant’s son, who would one day become an iron-hearted immigration enforcer, had a mutt named Pepper, who followed him to school. The boy made snow angels in the backyard during the winter and played cowboy with his toy six-shooters in the summer. He walked to a local movie house to watch Westerns. Sometimes, he sat on the front porch and stared at the cemetery across from his house and listened to ball games on the radio.
Ciro married a telephone operator named Rose when Joe Arpaio was twelve. He didn’t always get along with Rose. The stepfamily dynamics were made even more difficult when Ciro and Rose had a son, Michael.
Joe Arpaio had a difficult time in school. He struggled to get passing grades and often bore the brunt of anti-immigrant taunts: Dago! Wop! Guinea!
He took it, pretended to ignore it. Because that’s what you did back then, he told us.
Arpaio chose not to go to college. Instead, he enlisted in the Army after graduating from high school in 1950. And after his three-year tour in France as a medical clerk ended, he set out to show the world he was somebody.
He applied to be in the U.S. Border Patrol but told us he flunked the entry test. In four years, he had three jobs. First he was a beat cop in an African American neighborhood in Washington, D.C., where he said he whacked people with his nightstick. “I was a pretty aggressive cop,” he told us. “Made more arrests than anybody in the precinct. Not that I was prejudiced. I wasn’t prejudiced.” He wanted to become a detective, but after nearly four years he hadn’t been promoted and, as he put it in his second memoir, Joe’s Law, “the promotion rolls were backed up” and “I was pretty constantly aching somewhere on my body, from one encounter or another.” So, he moved on to the police force in tiny Las Vegas, Nevada, where, he often claimed, he arrested Elvis Presley for a traffic violation and took him down to the station house to meet the guys. After six months in Las Vegas, Arpaio moved east again, signing up as a narcotics agent for the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, where he would stay for twenty-five years.
We came to understand that Arpaio learned, in the small drug enforcement agency then overseen by the Treasury Department, a lot of things that would inform his tenure as a Maricopa County sheriff. He learned how to assume a fictitious role. He learned how to self-validate by inserting himself in the news. And he learned how to create chaos on the United States–Mexico border to achieve a political goal.
In the early days, Arpaio dreamed up tough-guy characters for his undercover work and jumped into those roles with gusto. One of his partners in Chicago, Bill Mattingly, told us he and Arpaio went undercover passing themselves off as pimps looking for drugs to buy for their “junkie whores.”
To play these roles the duo tooled around in fancy cars that authorities had seized from suspected crooks. Arpaio smoked a cigar and dressed in flashy sports coats. He purchased five-dollar “nickel bags” of heroin for the whores, after which he and Mattingly placed the low-level dealer into the back of a car and threatened years of prison if the dealer didn’t name his supplier. This earned Arpaio the bureau nickname of “Nickel Bag Joe.”
“If you’re a real good liar, you were a good undercover agent,” Mattingly said.
Back at the office, Arpaio typed up the reports late into the night. By then he had a wife. In 1957 he and Ava Lam, a clerical worker he’d met in Washington, had married in a simple civil ceremony in Chicago. Ava aspired to be a hairdresser and found Arpaio to be a “little Italian cutie.”
Mattingly met Ava at an agency Fourth of July picnic. He thought she was sweet and pretty, and he worried that Arpaio ignored his wife and spent too much time away from her. He would sometimes say, Joe, go home to Ava, it’s late.
Early in their marriage, Ava asked her husband to call her every night, so she wouldn’t worry. “I don’t want to sit and worry. I only want to know you’re safe. I don’t care what you’re doing, where you are. I want to know you’re safe. That’s all,” she told us she recalled telling her husband.
He called, and she didn’t complain about his long hours.
Ava didn’t mind that her husband wasn’t much help caring for their first child, Rocco, a boy named after Rocco Marchegiano, better known as “Rocky Marciano,” the Italian American boxer. Her husband only babysat once and never washed a dish, cooked or made a bed, she told us.
“He was too busy, had to sleep when he was off, ’cause he did work a lot of hours,” she told us.
Then she added, “It’s okay.”
The Arpaios settled into an American enclave in Istanbul after Arpaio was transferred to Turkey in 1961. It was a prestigious post, because Turkey was key to an international heroin trafficking network and one of a handful of countries where the Federal Bureau of Narcotics stationed agents overseas. Ava was alone much of the time with their toddler son.
Back in Springfield, Massachusetts, Ciro was alone, too. When he was sixty, in 1961, his second wife died of cancer. By then, Ciro was a prominent member of the Springfield Italian American community. His younger son, Michael, was still in high school. His older son, Joe, told us he knew his father, “coming from the old country always believed in education” and was disappointed that his firstborn hadn’t gotten a college education.
Then, in 1963, Ciro read a story in a Springfield newspaper, headlined “Ton of Opium Seized in Turkey.” The only person named in the story was “Joseph Arpaio, special narcotics agent,” who reported the opium bust was the “largest ever made in Turkey and one of the largest in the world.” Arpaio told us his dad was proud of him and had shown the article around Springfield.
From then on, Joe Arpaio sought validation in the media.
While still in Turkey in the early 1960s, Joe Arpaio got in a gun battle. His three accounts of the deadly shootout in Turkey are inconsistent: first in a newspaper interview, then in testimony before a United States Senate subcommittee, and last in his two co-written memoirs. The differing versions of the shootout story reflect Arpaio’s tendency to mold a story to fit the audience.
Arpaio first told the deadly shootout story publicly in 1982, shortly before his retirement from drug enforcement and two decades after his tour in Turkey. In an interview with a Phoenix reporter, Arpaio spoke carefully. He said back in the 1960s, when he was in Turkey, he and five Turkish police officers got into a gun battle with Turkish drug dealers. “Four of the Turks got away, and the other was shot to death,” Arpaio told the reporter. He didn’t say who, exactly, shot the man. But he did say he and the Turkish cops were charged with murder, and the charges were eventually dismissed.
He referenced the shootout again in 1989, during a hearing before the International Narcotics Control Caucus of the United States Senate, chaired by then-Senator Joe Biden. This time, he said he killed two Turks. According to transcripts of his testimony, Arpaio, in the context of critiquing the efficacy of the State Department working abroad with drug enforcement agents, blurted out to the senators: “A paradox: one of my weekly gun battles in the mountains of Turkey where I killed two Turks, two dope peddlers, and I was indicted along with four other police officers for murder. I sent a cable through State Department channels and nothing happened. Three weeks later, they finally decided, ‘Gee, we had better do something with Joe.’ Of course, I resolved the matter. My indictment was dismissed, and the other police officers had to stand trial; but they were found not guilty. Let me add we were in the line of duty.”
He changed his story a third time in his two memoirs, co-authored with Len Sherman. In both books, written in Arpaio’s first-person voice, the passages describing the shootout are the same, word for word. The books note “two people were killed” during the gun battle Arpaio was involved in. The books cast Arpaio as a victim of internal Turkish political squabbles and detail how the American ambassador and Turkish leaders interceded and got Arpaio off the hook. “The charges were dropped,” the books say, “and the press didn’t get a chance to smear the story all over the front pages.”
“I can’t say I lost much sleep over the whole affair,” Arpaio says in his memoirs. “It’s not that I was glad the dealers had been killed. I wasn’t. But it happened, and more often than on one occasion.”
We asked Arpaio several times if he’d ever killed anybody. He answered: “Not that I know of, although in Turkey I used to have gun battles, I think one gun battle I did hit one or two of the dope peddlers only because I am the only one that had the gun. A thirty-eight I guess.” He added hastily that he had never killed anyone in the United States. Another time, he told us, “In Turkey I’ve had some gun battles. I don’t know who killed who. . . But I never killed anybody.”
Joe Arpaio learned more about the United States–Mexico border—and its potential for political exploitation—when he was assigned to drug enforcement in the Washington, D.C. metro area. In the nation’s capital, he and other drug enforcement officials “regaled” Nixon with “war stories” about drug interdictions. In 1969, Nixon ordered Operation Intercept—a blockade of border-crossing stations on the United States–Mexico border. The blockade was trumpeted by the Nixon administration as a means to keep Mexican drugs out of the United States, but it was actually an expensive publicity ploy intended to showcase Nixon’s war on drugs and intimidate Mexico into complying with it. Among other things, Mexican leaders did not want Americans to aerially spray Mexican marijuana fields with herbicides.
That fall, Arpaio helped orchestrate the three-week border blockade for the Department of Justice, which by that time oversaw federal drug enforcement.
Long lines of honking cars and trucks waited for hours to enter the United States as immigration authorities and narcotics agents individually searched four and a half million children, men, and women. Some were strip-searched. Officials even inspected women’s hairdos.
Arpaio told us he observed the chaos from an airplane, along with G. Gordon Liddy, a Nixon adviser who later served more than four years in prison for his role in the 1972 burglary of a Democratic National Committee office in the Watergate Hotel.
While Arpaio witnessed the border bedlam from the sky, Antonio Bustamante felt it on the ground. Bustamante was a senior at Douglas High School, a tall honor student who played football. The sister border towns of Douglas, Arizona and Agua Prieta, Sonora, situated in rocky, semi-arid grassland, were intertwined economically and culturally. It wasn’t unusual for Douglas residents to have relatives in Agua Prieta and vice versa. Just about everybody in Douglas, like Bustamante, was of Mexican descent and spoke Spanish.
“Commerce came to a standstill,” Bustamante told us.
“Mexicans cursed Nixon, and American border residents thought their government in faraway Washington was being run by idiots.” The blockade lasted three weeks. At the time, Bustamante had never heard of Arpaio. Decades later, he would vocally oppose restrictive immigration policy in Arizona. And as an activist, he would see similarities in style between Operation Intercept and Arpaio’s neighborhood sweeps and traffic stops that ensnared so many American citizens of color and Latino immigrants in Maricopa County.
“Same techniques. Same attitude! Ignorance, disrespect, and narcissism,” Bustamante told us.
The Nixon administration was pleased with Arpaio and sent him to Mexico City in 1970 as regional director of the Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs for Latin America. By that time, the Arpaios had a second child, Sherry, a girl. They moved into a Mexico City suburb with midcentury homes surrounded by high walls.
Ciro visited his son in Mexico. He saw the signs of his son’s success. The classy house. Ava’s maid. The Nixon administration valued Arpaio so much that Richard Kleindienst, Nixon’s deputy attorney general, would jet into Mexico City and consult with Arpaio over conspiracies and undercover operations. And every now and again the Mexican attorney general dropped by for whiskey and pie. Arpaio sensed his stern father was impressed, even though he said nothing.
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Ciro died in 1974 of pancreatic cancer. Arpaio told us he bought his father’s headstone and buried Ciro between his two wives. By then, Arpaio was stationed in Boston. He’d served in Chicago, Istanbul, Mexico City, San Antonio, Texas, and the Washington, D.C. metro area—close to two decades investigating conspiracies, going undercover, and managing regional operations. The Federal Bureau of Narcotics had morphed into the Federal Bureau of Narcotics and Dangerous Drugs, which had become the Drug Enforcement Agency, known as the DEA.
And with only four years left before he could retire, he chose Arizona as his last DEA post.
In 1978, when Joe Arpaio first stepped into the DEA office in downtown Phoenix, the city center was an archipelago of modest skyscrapers, old hotels, abandoned movie palaces, dive bars, pawnshops, rundown bungalows, and vacant dusty lots.
Maricopa County, which encompassed the Phoenix metro area, was larger than the state of New Jersey and home to about one and a half million people. The Arpaios, like so many newcomers, chose to live in the northeast valley. Ava eventually set up a travel agency in Scottsdale, one of the wealthiest suburbs ringing the city. Scottsdale was known for its orderly wide streets, expensive shopping malls, resort hotels, art galleries, golf courses, and a western-themed downtown that evoked the cowboy movies Joe Arpaio had watched as a kid in Springfield, Massachusetts. Beyond the metro area, irrigated fields of pima cotton, sweet alfalfa, and orchards of fragrant orange and lemon trees gave way to the beige and pink sands of the Sonoran Desert.
As the new DEA agent in charge of the Phoenix region, Arpaio was challenged by two Mexican American colleagues who claimed he was a vindictive racist. Phil Jordan, who headed the Phoenix office of the DEA before Arpaio took over, told us he publicly criticized Arpaio for sabotaging relationships between Mexican and American drug enforcement agents. Jordan told us Arpaio subsequently initiated an internal DEA investigation. The probe centered on allegations that Jordan had leaked secret information to a journalist and had used the office copy machine to duplicate a cookbook for his girlfriend. Jordan was stripped of his rank and confined to a desk job. Months later, the DEA found the allegations had no merit. When we asked about this, Arpaio wouldn’t deny he kickstarted the investigation, but he wouldn’t confirm it, either.
Laura Garcia, the only Mexican American woman agent in the Phoenix DEA office, clashed with Arpaio after she called a city fire marshal about explosive chemicals carelessly and illegally stored in the DEA office in downtown Phoenix. Garcia was pregnant. She had reason to worry about chemicals in her workplace. The Arizona Republic learned of the chemicals and wrote a story about it. Garcia told us that following publication of the article, Arpaio seemed to go against her. In her memory, Arpaio disparaged her race and ethnicity during Monday morning meetings, sent her on useless and exhausting travel assignments, and ordered his underlings to go through her car and then write up an investigative report about her having two parking tickets.
“You should be home having babies and cooking tortillas,” she remembered Arpaio telling her.
She toyed with suing Arpaio for harassment but told us she couldn’t find a lawyer willing to take the case because Arpaio was a powerful man and she was just a woman. She told us she complained to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, but the agency didn’t take her seriously. She left the DEA and moved to another state.
Arpaio remembered the conflict very differently years later. He strongly denied making the tortilla comment. He said that at the time he and Garcia had their differences, there were rumors that the DEA would be absorbed by the FBI. At a meeting, he warned his staffers not to be caught “shacking up” because the FBI would have none of that kind of behavior, which prompted Garcia to file a complaint. The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission got in touch with him and told him to “be careful.” And then Garcia left the agency and life went on.
Joe Arpaio retired from the DEA when he was fifty, in the summer of 1982. He was feted at a dinner at the Mountain Shadows resort in Paradise Valley, a wealthy Phoenix suburb. The Arizona Republic sent its society reporter to cover the gala. Over roast beef, cooked carrots, and broccoli, Senator Dennis DeConcini, a Democrat, praised Arpaio. “Other lavish tributes,” the newspaper wrote, came from prosecutors, cops, FBI agents, and federal immigration officials.
He figured the world would forget him because that’s what happened when people retired. No one would remember the kid from Springfield, the kid the bullies called Wop, Dago, and Guinea, the kid who didn’t go to college but made it big anyway. No one would remember the undercover work, the conspiracies, the pimp with junkie whores, the ton of opium seized in Turkey, the border blockade called Operation Intercept. No one would remember Joe Arpaio.
Well, he wasn’t ready to be forgotten. Not quite yet.
Joe Arpaio rarely mentioned the decade he worked at his wife’s business—the Starworld Travel Agency in Scottsdale, which she opened in 1980. Days after he retired from the DEA, in 1982, an ad appeared in The Arizona Republic announcing Arpaio’s transition to Starworld Travel Agency. The ad included a photograph of Arpaio staring tentatively at the camera through aviator glasses, as if unsure of a travel agent’s proper demeanor.
The Starworld Travel office, decorated with travel posters and furnished with large desks, sat in a Scottsdale strip mall near Handlebar J, a touristy Western steakhouse. Ava sold cruise and plane tickets, but Arpaio would not master his wife’s computer, which held schedules, itineraries, and vouchers. Ava told us her husband helped with advertising and delivering tickets.
“I emptied the wastebasket, counted the money, got customers,” Arpaio said.
After a few months at Starworld Travel, Arpaio ran for the Phoenix City Council. On the stump, he suggested driving the homeless out of town or locking them up in jail. It foreshadowed what some viewed as his politically opportunistic treatment of vulnerable populations. Arpaio lost that election and returned to the travel agency, where he hawked reservations for space flights that never happened.
After ten years at the travel agency, Arpaio ran for Maricopa County sheriff in 1992. He later said he had a “a hard time working for my wife so I ran for sheriff. You have my wife to thank for that.” He defeated the incumbent Maricopa County sheriff, Tom Agnos, in the Republican primary. Agnos had mishandled an investigation of a shooting at a Buddhist temple that had killed nine people.
By then, Maricopa County’s population had surged to a little over two million. The United States Census reported “non-Hispanic Whites” accounted for about 77 percent of the county population, while Hispanic residents made up 16 percent. The remaining 7 percent were people defined as Black, American Indian, Asian and Pacific Islander, or Other.
As a politician, Arpaio connected with Silent Generation retirees who’d migrated to Maricopa County from the snowy American Midwest, with working-class white families, and with mainstream conservative voters who were fearful of a record-breaking violent crime wave that peaked in the United States in 1991.
Arpaio told voters who craved law and order that he would keep them safe. His drug enforcement career made him seem especially qualified to be the top lawman in the county. His campaign literature warned that current mismanagement of the sheriff’s office “could be a source of wasted tax dollars because of multi-million dollar lawsuits.” He promised to stay for just one term, should he be elected.
He was endorsed by the editorial board of The Arizona Republic, the county’s most influential conservative voice. The newspaper insisted Arpaio could reform the “clownish sheriff’s department.”
Kathryn Kobor, who would remain an Arpaio loyalist for decades, told us she always voted for him because he was one of the few politicians who listened to people like her. She and her working-class family had moved to Arizona when she was four, in 1947. Her father, a former gas station attendant, at first had dug ditches in a Maricopa County citrus orchard. Eventually, her parents got jobs at Motorola, a high-tech company and one of the state’s largest employers. They’d prospered and purchased a home.
Like so many Phoenix oldtimers, Kobor would recall the Phoenix of her youth as an idyllic oasis. Within the sleepy city, she waded in tree-shaded irrigation ditches and sipped lime Cokes in drugstore soda fountains. Kobor felt safe in Phoenix, even at night, when she and her sister walked home from the bus stop after taking in a movie. But as the years passed, Kobor no longer felt safe. Phoenix was a big city now, and Kobor trusted Arpaio to lock up criminals and restore law and order.
“I’ve followed Joe Arpaio for years and he’s actually my hero,” she later told us.
In 1993, Arpaio was sworn in as sheriff in a county ceremony. Mary Rose Garrido Wilcox was sworn in with him. She’d grown up in a Mexican-American family in an Arizona mining town and became the first Latina on the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors. She was also the only Democrat on the board, which oversaw Arpaio’s budget.
Early on, Arpaio gave Wilcox an unusual compliment.
“You look so much like my mother in her pictures,” Wilcox would remember Arpaio told her. “I could never get mad at you.”
Arpaio regularly showed up at the Mexican restaurant Wilcox owned with her husband, Earl. El Portal drew a robust lunch crowd of powerbrokers, politicos, and journalists. Furnished with muscular, dark wooden tables and chairs, the eatery was decorated with portraits of civil rights heroes like Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr. and was famous for its homemade cocido, a Mexican stew made of beef rib, vegetables, and potatoes. It was Arpaio’s favorite meal there.
Earl Wilcox, a tall man who loved basketball, had grown up in the same south Phoenix barrio where El Portal was situated. As a neighborhood activist, he ran a basketball gym for kids. Sometimes, Arpaio dropped by the gym and brought the kids hot dogs from the jailhouse kitchens.
“He would come and we would highlight him with the kids,” Mary Rose Wilcox told us. “I remember one time he even made a three-point shot from mid-court.”
Wilcox appreciated Arpaio’s vows to keep her heavily Latino district safe. And she respected Arpaio for not wanting to waste law enforcement dollars by apprehending undocumented immigrants and handing them over to federal officials for deportation.
But then, after fifteen years of friendship, Arpaio would change. He would begin targeting unauthorized immigrants, instead of protecting them. His relationship with Wilcox, his Mexican American political ally who looked so much like his mother, would turn into a sour feud. It would end with what Wilcox would view as a retaliatory law enforcement investigation and a baseless criminal indictment.
Wilcox would recognize Arpaio’s immigration crusade as the latest iteration of the cyclical persecution of Mexicans, and people presumed to be Mexican, that had plagued Arizona for generations.
As an undercover narcotics agent, Arpaio had been adept at inventing new personas for himself. Now, as the newly elected 60-year-old top lawman in Maricopa County, he transitioned from the role of travel agency co-owner who emptied wastebaskets to a tough Western sheriff. This new role—a heroic lawman who kept the town folk safe—comported with the Westerns he’d seen as a kid. Ava began calling him “Sheriff Joe.”
“I think the first thing I said when we got awake in the morning was, ‘Hi, Sheriff,’” she told us.
“So even in bed I’m working. Think of that,” Arpaio replied.
His job requirements didn’t always sync with his newly invented character. He couldn’t gallop after horse thieves. He was tasked instead with administering a large agency. His main job involved oversight of county jails, where many inmates had been convicted of relatively minor offenses—like prostitution or drunk driving—and were serving sentences of less than a year. The remaining jail inmates awaited their day in court. Many were too poor to pay their bail. Some were ultimately convicted of serious crimes and served the remainder of their sentences in the state’s prison system.
Besides administering the jails and transporting inmates from jail to court, Arpaio’s department was expected to police county communities that did not have their own law enforcement agencies. But state law gave Arpaio vast power to keep the peace anywhere in the county, even in cities and towns with their own police forces that didn’t particularly want him there. Arizona sheriffs are elected officers. While their budgets are controlled by county supervisors, sheriffs cannot be fired.
I’m the sheriff, Arpaio often said.
No one tells this sheriff what to do.
Excerpted from Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance by Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block, published by the University of California Press © 2021.
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