He came when they were least expecting him, bursting into restaurants, factories, and other workplaces employing undocumented Latino immigrants, demanding their identification. If they couldn’t produce any, Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio whisked them away to his “Tent City” — a vast, open-air jail consisting of Army tents left over from the Korean War in which he held both convicted criminals and alleged illegal immigrants still awaiting trial.
“I put [the tents] up next to the dump, the dog pound, the waste-disposal plant,” he said.
Inmates wore black-and-white striped uniforms over pink underwear; on their feet, pink socks or flip-flops. Guards even restrained them with pink handcuffs. Yet, even as he ordered everything to come in pink to dehumanize his prisoners, Arpaio boasted of his money-saving strategies. These included banning coffee, newspapers, magazines, and seasonings, and cutting meals down to just two a day at thirty cents apiece: “it costs more to feed the dogs than it does the inmates,” he reported.
A former inmate of Arpaio’s jail, Francisco Chairez, recalls that the jail served peanut butter sandwiches for the first meal and bologna sandwiches for the other, with a mysterious third option simply known as “slob.”
Arpaio remains proud of having established the first-ever female chain gang and, later, a volunteer-based youth gang (for which he incentivized participants by offering high school credit). His laborers suffered through nine-hour days in the Arizona heat. Chairez recalls that, as temperatures climbed upwards of 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the stifling summers, they stripped down to their pink underwear and scrambled to compensate for the jail’s lack of cold water by purchasing overpriced bottles from vending machines — if they could afford it. Showers, he writes, were kept “scalding” no matter the season.
One day in 2011, Arpaio reported that the temperature inside the tents hit a fiery 145 degrees. Prisoners’ shoes melted in the dry, sweltering heat as they fainted, suffered heatstroke, and even died from thirst and exposure.
Winters were even worse than the brutal summers in Chairez’s eyes: Arpaio reportedly did not allow jackets. Prisoners resorted to filling bottles with hot shower water and holding them close to their bodies as they slept.
Further abuse led to thousands of lawsuits and investigations. One federal case found some of Arpaio’s deputies using stun guns on prisoners already confined in “restraint chairs,” and ex-prisoners continue to sue the department for various abuses upon their release.
Ultimately, the department faced approximately 2,200 lawsuits for allegations of repeatedly defying court orders, refusing to investigate rape allegations in the jail, overseeing wrongful deaths, wrongfully arresting Latino individuals, instating immigration patrols, managing unlawful sweeps of Latino communities, and infringing upon the human rights of those he imprisoned. For those who died in what Arpaio himself called a “concentration camp” to supporters at an Arizona Italian-American club back in 2012, their families have sought justice.
Sheriff Joe, who dubbed himself “the toughest sheriff in America” and inexplicably avoided consequences aside from fines and slaps on the wrist, was re-elected six times. Undeterred by and even proud of Tent City, voters thrust their support behind the man some call a hero, even when Amnesty International condemned the jail in 1997 on the grounds that it was nothing close to an “adequate or humane alternative to housing inmates.”
Of course, Sheriff Joe implied that nobody should challenge his methods as he was merely punishing criminals and abiding by the law. “Even if it was a concentration camp,” America’s toughest sheriff asked The Guardian in July 2017, “what difference does it make? I still survived. I still kept getting re-elected.”
His first loss came on November 8, 2016, the same day that Donald Trump — the candidate he endorsed — won the presidential election.
The new Maricopa County Sheriff, Paul Penzone, promised to shut down Tent City.
Maricopa County is Arizona’s largest and includes Phoenix, a bustling city in a state that often serves as Mexican immigrants’ gateway into the U.S. An estimated 325,000 currently reside there. Arpaio was elected sheriff back in 1993, promising to crack down on the growing population of undocumented immigrants in the area.
He did much more to this end than construct Tent City. In 2010, he advocated for Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, the strictest anti-illegal immigration legislation passed in the state. The act required that police attempt to determine an individual’s immigration status using a “lawful [traffic-]stop, detention, or arrest” policy. It became a crime for immigrants to leave home without carrying their documentation, and the law even punished those who knowingly sheltered, hired, or transported undocumented immigrants.
An investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice just a year later in 2011 concluded that Arpaio oversaw what they called the worst systemic racial profiling in U.S. history, thus establishing “a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos.” They sued him for abusing his power to target the minority group and ordered that he stop racially profiling Latino drivers, who were four to nine times more likely to be pulled over by Maricopa County law enforcement than drivers of other ethnicities.
Arpaio and his office vocally and vehemently refused to comply.
Even still, our president supports him.
(Photograph Copyright © Western Center for Journalism/Gage Skidmore, Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaking with supporters at a campaign rally for Donald Trump at the Prescott Valley Event Center in Prescott Valley, Arizona, 4 October 2016)
Last week, President Trump demonstrated that he had not forgotten Arpaio’s public endorsement of him during his candidacy. U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow sued Joe Arpaio in 2014 for repeated contempt of court, for which he was found guilty on July 31, 2017. As he awaited his sentencing in October 2017, President Trump granted him a presidential pardon on August 25, declaring him “an American patriot” who “kept Arizona safe” by “protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration.”
His pardon was anything but presidential, however. Many people on both sides of the political spectrum find it to be another example of his permitting, condoning, or engaging in racism.
Arpaio’s pardon stands in stark contrast to the controversy arising when President Barack Obama commuted military whistleblower Chelsea Manning’s sentence earlier this year. Commutation is a different form of clemency than a pardon. While a pardon forgives and condones an action, commutation still condemns it, but acknowledges that the perpetrator was only doing what they thought to be the best for the greater good.
Some argue that Trump pardoned Arpaio for contempt of court, not directly for his prison management or racial profiling of Latinos. However, Tent City was no secret, and Arpaio’s court summons were for allegations stemming from the jail and from the systemic racism he instigated as sheriff. Therefore, by pardoning Arpaio rather than condemning him (as he should have) or simply commuting his sentence, our President condones not just Arpaio’s refusal to stand trial but also the racially-motivated actions that led to the court summons.
What really is best for the United States when it comes to illegal immigration? The answer doesn’t lie in concentration camps, but it’s certainly a national problem that we need to address.
Illegal immigration puts a significant strain on the American economy. According to Keeping the Republic: Power and Citizenship in American Politics, an influx of poor, undocumented immigrants without professional skills in a community burdens the area’s social services, including its public schools. Some — though certainly not all — illegal immigrants work off the books, meaning they don’t pay taxes and therefore don’t support the community they inhabit. Thus, that area becomes underfunded.
However, this isn’t always the case. Some undocumented immigrants have lived in the States for decades and have integrated into society. Many raise families, pay taxes, attend college, and contribute to their community. Often, they were brought here as children and now have little to no recollection of life in their home country. The ethical quandary that arises about immigration regards how those who come here illegally do so usually out of desperation and a search for a better life free from fear, war, or poverty. The United States asylum and legal immigration processes are convoluted and time-consuming, and those fleeing unsafe living conditions to protect and provide for their families often don’t have the time to wait for visas. By what stretch of the imagination should we dehumanize and criminalize those who simply want to provide for their families, just like everyone else?
While the best course of action would be granting amnesty for the undocumented immigrants currently residing within the States and then reforming our immigration processes going forward, we can be sure that subjecting suspected illegal immigrants to facilities such as “Tent City” is one of the least effective ways we could address the problem.
Our president’s deference to criminals such as Arpaio continues to empower him and others who subscribe to such ideas. This week, for example, 85-year-old Joe Arpaio announced a potential run for the Arizona state Senate.
We can assume that President Trump will endorse him. 🔷
(Cover: Photograph Copyright © Western Center for Journalism/Gage Skidmore, Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaking at the 2014 Western Conservative Conference at the Phoenix Convention Center in Phoenix, Arizona, 22 February 2014)