A History of Violence: Joe Arpaio’s Racist Crusade Against Latinxs

By catherine lizette gonzalez Aug 28, 2017

On Friday (August 25), President Donald Trump granted a presidential pardon to former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a man who is infamous for racially profiling Latinxs in Arizona and running an outdoor tent city jail he once described as a "concentration camp."

After 18 months of showing no interest in complying with a federal judge’s demand that he stop using policing tactics that targeted Latinxs, Arpaio was charged and then convicted of criminal contempt. His sentencing hearing was scheduled for October; he was facing up to six months in jail for the misdemeanor.

Arpaio was first elected to serve as Maricopa County’s sheriff in 1993, and by the early 2000s, he was openly targeting Latinxs, conducting traffic stops that racially profiled drivers whom he assumed were undocumented immigrants. In 2013, a federal judge ruled that Arpaio was violating the constitution and racially profiling Latinxs.

Arpaio grew in popularity among proponents of the strong borders movement for his staunch opposition to undocumented immigration. The same year he was elected, he opened Tent City Jail, just 10 miles south of Phoenix, Arizona. He billed it as a solution to overcrowding in Maricopa County jails. But by the early 2000s, it was a sadistic prison where Arpaio punished undocumented immigrants, housing them in tents that did nothing to protect them from the scorching Arizona heat, and reinstating chain gangs for women and men. Up to 2,000 inmates were housed in the outdoor facility at a time—and the prison population was disproportionately Latinx.

Francisco Chairez spent a year in Arpaio’s tent city. On Saturday (August 26), he wrote about his experience for The Washington Post. 

During the sweltering summer, the temperature could reach 115 or 120 degrees. I was in the tents when we hit 120. It was impossible to stay cool in the oppressive heat. Everyone would strip down to their underwear. There was no cold water, only water from vending machines; and eventually, the machines would run out. People would faint; some had heatstroke. That summer, ambulances came about three times. One man died in his bed.

In a 2012 Department of Justice (DOJ) investigation, officials uncovered how women were denied menstrual hygiene products, and forced to sleep on their own blood-stained sheets. The investigation also revealed that women were placed in solitary confinement if they were unable to understand instructions in English. And in 2009, local newspaper Phoenix New Times reported the story of a pregnant Latina who was forced to give birth in shackles. In 2001, Arpaio was forced to turn off web cams in a women’s bathroom at Madison Street Jail, which had previously streamed live footage of Latinxs using the toilets. The "jail cam" was part of a 24-hour public live web stream that showed video of incarcerated people in the county.

And then there are the things he didn’t focus on. As Rolling Stone reported in a 2012 feature, he was so obessed with criminalizing undocumented immigrants that he failed to investigate more than 400 cases of sexual assault, including assaults on children, throughout Maricopa County.

Arpaio often invited reporters and celebrities to the tent city in an attempt to bolster his reputation as the "toughest sheriff in America." On those visits, he reportedly staged inhumane spectacles, like forcing incarcerated men and women to walk throughout Phoenix in their jail-issued uniforms. For many inmates, the 24 years Arpaio spent managing the jail was fatal. The Phoenix New Times reports that, from 1996 to 2015, the suicide rate in the jails under his purview was 24 percent. To put that in perspective, the DOJ reports that the suicide rate for 2000 through 2002 was 6 percent in Cook County (Chicago) and 9 percent in New York City.

On November 8, 2016, Arpaio was finally voted out of office, thanks to mass mobilization campaigns by immigrant rights groups. Even though Trump hinted at a pardon for Arpaio at an Arizona campaign rally last week, the 85-year-old former sheriff said he was still surprised by the president’s decision. On Friday (August 25), Arapaio tweeted his response, alleging that the charges were "a political witch hunt by holdovers in the Obama Justice Department!"

Today (August 28), Trump defended his decision at a press conference with Finland’s president, Sauli Niinistö. "Sheriff Joe loves our country," he said. "Sheriff Joe protected our borders."

But many civil rights advocates, think the pardon will further embolden immigration enforcement practices that harm Latinxs and communities of color. From the American Civil Liberties Union’s deputy legal director Cecillia Wang’s statement following the pardon:

With his pardon of Arpaio, Trump has chosen lawlessness over justice, division over unity, hurt over healing. Once again, the president has acted in support of illegal, failed immigration enforcement practices that target people of color and have been struck down by the courts. His pardon of Arpaio is a presidential endorsement of racism.