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What the Sheriff Joe Lawsuit is Really About

Remember infamous Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who's been battling with the Justice Department over allegation of ethnic discrimination in his jurisdiction? For example, on the streets, Latinos were 5 to 9 times more likely to be searched under...
May 21, 2012, 5:40pm

Remember infamous Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who’s been battling with the Justice Department over allegation of race bias in his jurisdiction? For example, on the streets, Latinos were 5 to 9 times more likely to be searched under Arpaio and were subjected to racial slurs while jailed. A photograph of a Chihuahua in a bathing suit was circulated between jailers adorned with the caption, "A rare Mexican navy seal." Well, things just got real: the Justice Department filed a lawsuit against Arpaio, citing a pattern of racial profiling and ethnic discrimination.


"They're using me for the Latino vote," Arpaio responded. "I hate to say this is political, but the timing is suspect." It's hard to believe Arpaio hates saying that. This is a man who has refused, and taken pride in, refusing to cooperate with the Department of Justice, who was once sued by the ACLU for abusing pre-trial detainees, who misused millions of dollars set aside for jail items, and held a press conference explaining that the president's birth certificate is a forgery.

The fact he has embraced his image, as lightning rod of the immigration debate and symbol of The Copper State's descent into right-wing utopia, leads one to the conclusion that he probably loves saying that: identifying himself as a martyr in a wide conspiracy designed to strip everything good and decent away from America. However, if Arpaio is right about the politics of the decision, what of it? As Ari Melber wrote this week, in response to charges of Obama playing politics on gay marriage, "If the president did endorse gay marriage 'for politics' — because it's increasingly popular and decreasingly toxic — that in itself marks tremendous progress for the nation." Arpaio's record is so strikingly toxic that a lawsuit seems completely overdue, whether it's being used as some cynical ploy to reel in Latino voters or not. If it finally leads to Arpaio facing ramifications for his actions: hurrah for politics. Unfortunately for Obama, this political game is being played far too late. Despite running for president on a platform of sensible immigration reform, the Obama administration has deported far more individuals than his predecessor: 370,000 for the fiscal year of 2008, 390,000 in 2009, 393,000 in 2010, and 397,000 in 2011. The mandated goal of 400,000 deportations a year, handed down by Congress, has been achieved by deporting people for low-level infractions, separating families and eroding the trust that community police officers rely upon to catch criminals.

You could watch this short AP report, or you could read the comments.

The results have, of course, been actualized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), the far-reaching law enforcement agency created by the Homeland Security Act in wake of the September 11th attacks. Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano has overseen all this and, now, she seems to remain silent on the question of Arpaio despite the fact that her organization's recent policies have strengthened the culture he thrives in. This is not the first time Napolitano has failed to reprimand Arpaio. In 1995, as an attorney, she headed a Justice Department Investigation of his deplorable “tent city” with a startling level of hesitation.

The final report detailed inmate beatings, hogtying, and excessive pepper spraying. Napolitano held a press conference alongside Arpaio, downplaying her own investigation as "lawyerly paperwork" before letting Sheriff grab the mic and go through the whole "They'll never take me alive!" routine. During the nineties, people used to explain Dick Morris' prescribed plan of triangulation for Clinton as the political version of Three Card Monte: It's a confidence game where a mark is conned into thinking there's something in it for him. Time after time, groups ended up with the losing card: gays got the Defense of Marriage Act solidifying the laws, African-Americans were given the Welfare Reform Act dropping thousands of them below the poverty line, and labor got NAFTA, just to name a few. The Obama administration has never been as good at the game as the Clinton team was, but they certainly understand how it's played. There are certain constituents that keep playing, not because they like to gamble, but because one glance at the GOP reminds them that it's the only contest being offered. Napolitano's failure to come down on Arpaio places Homeland Security at odds with the Department of Justice and reveals that she grasps the game as well as anyone. Sheriff Joe Arpaio represents everything that is currently wrong with American culture and the tepid response to his indiscretions is a blemish on all of us.