Arizona Edition: The Arpaio Era and the Lasting Impact, Part 1

Jun 22, 2021

 

This is part one of a two part series that first aired on June 18, 2021 on KAWC’s Arizona Editon. 

HOST (Lou Gum):

I'm Lou Gum. This is Arizona Edition on KAWC.

Former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio is nearing 90. My guest today says he makes a few appearances but is mostly out of the spotlight. Not his preferred location, she says, if history is our guide.

Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block are the authors of Driving, While Brown Sheriff Joe Arpaio Versus The Latino Resistance. Calling on years of experience reporting on the border, border issues, and Arpaio himself, Sterling and Joffe-Block piece together the story behind the man and explore the resistance movement he inspired. 

Sterling is Writer in Residence at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Newsweek, Rolling Stone and The Atlantic, among others. 

Sterling is also the author of 2010’s Illegal: Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone. Today we'll hear part one of our conversation.

Terry Greene Sterling. Thank you for joining us. 

I have shared with our listeners your, sort of, book cover bio, but I was wondering if you could tell us a little bit more about your background, both here in Arizona and in terms of the beat that you kind of carved out on the border and on immigration issues. 

 

Terry Greene Sterling (TGS):  

Sure. Well, I was born into an Arizona-Sonora borderlands family and I have written for about 40 years about the people, places and politics of the region that I love. So that's my background. 

I was really blessed to have spent 14 years at an alt-weekly, at the Phoenix New Times, many years ago and it gave me a love for long form writing. So,I've been writing long form stories about the border and books for a long time.

 

LG: 

New Times really a reputation to for some deep investigation. 

TSG: 

Yes indeed, yes indeed and you know, New Times was really the only newspaper for a long time that had the courage to take on Joe Arpaio. You know, I felt that the other media in Maricopa County for a very long time just sort of left him alone and really enabled him in a lot of ways by, you know, painting him as this you know, colorful sheriff that made folks wear pink underwear and you know, sleep in tents and that sort of helped him enforce his brand. 

But New Times was at the time writing about, you know, the wrongful death lawsuits filed by the loved ones, of people who had died in his jails under you know, circumstances that were very troubling so. 

 

LG: 

Even before the immigration sweeps there were, I recall, stories about some botched, house raids and obviously the entire controversy about tent city.  

 

TGS: 

Right, exactly. Justice Department investigators came out and uh, looked at tent city and said, you know there were some real issues with it. And there were, you know, many instances, I mean Arpaio, he loves the media, even his PR person says he loves the media and he often was covered very, you know, admirably, and without much context by the mainstream media. But that that did change Lou, as you know, when Arpaio started, his immigration enforcement sweeps in about 2006 or so.  

 

LG: 

Well, let's back up a bit. So, Arizonans across the state are of course familiar with Arpaio. He was Sheriff of Maricopa County, from 1993 until 2016. The self-proclaimed "toughest sheriff in America" which your book reveals was largely a persona and I want to get into that a little bit later but from inmate treatment to immigration sweeps to his connections to impeached and impeachable presidents in the past, who is this guy? Where did he come from? 

 

TGS: 

OK, well it's really interesting. We write a lot about it, because this is a book that is very much based on, you know, looking into the people too, and hearing from them, and understanding what really shaped them. With Arpaio, we did quite a bit of research into his background and we found out that his dad, Ciro, was a southern Italian immigrant who immigrated to the United States in the 1920s when the eugenics movement was, had a huge influence on immigration law. And the eugenicists falsely and wrongly believed that the European northern European race was the most civilized race in the world, and that it would be, it could be, tainted or mongrelized by lesser races such as southern Italians such as Arpaio’s dad. So Arpaio's dad came over at that moment in history and as a child, Arpaio was taunted a great deal, he told us. Other children would call him the same kinds of ugly names that his followers now call Latino immigrants, or did call Latino immigrants. So Arpaio’s dad was a very hard worker and didn't have a lot of time with him. And he was very, you know, he pushed Arpaio and you know Arpaio had, told us that, you know, his dad had wanted him to go to college, but instead Arpaio joined the precursor of the Drug Enforcement Administration. So he was a Drug Enforcement guy for the feds and during this period he developed some very formative, he developed some very formative traits that would later inform his tenure as Sheriff.

One of them was that he would go, he would go undercover and assume the persona of a fictitious character so that he could buy drugs and he was just excellent at it. His favorite persona, one of his favorite personas we found out, was a pimp with what he called 'Junkie Whores' and that's quote, end quote, and he would go undercover playing this pimp and try to buy drugs for these you know imaginary women. And even his wife, you know, played in the game because when people called his home, his wife, would buy into it, you know, and help him in this subterfuge.

He also developed a love for the media during his time in Drug Enforcement because he saw that his father, you know, was really proud of him when he was in the media. 

And he also developed a love, not a love but an understanding, of conspiracy theories and charging under conspiracies, because that was how the federal, you know federal prosecutors charged, with conspiracy charges. And he developed a fondness for conspiracies and he told us he was a conspiracy guy and that later played into in all sorts of ways in his tenure as Sheriff so. 

So it's been observed that he assumed the persona of America's toughest sheriff when he got, when he ran for Sheriff successfully in 1992. 

 

LG: Because he knew that would sell? 

TGS: 

Yeah, he had a knack for understanding how to brand himself. 

 

LG: 

Let's stick with his Italian roots there for a second. Did he have any sense of the irony others might see in his department's treatment of Latinos and immigrants under his leadership given that family history? 

 

TGS: 

We talked to him about this quite, you know, quite a bit and he did not. He's very scripted. He was very scripted with us, very often. And he would tell us the same thing he told hundreds of other reporters. Which is that well, "I'm just enforcing the law, this is low and I'm just enforcing the law,"and he could see nothing about his personal life or how he was raised, that gave him pause.

 

LG:

This week is the 50th anniversary of the war on drugs. How does Arpaio fit into the early days of this strategy inspired by former President Richard Nixon? 

 

TGS: 

Arpaio told us that the folks in the Nixon administration really liked him. At this point he was back, he was in the Washington D.C. area when Nixon was President. And one of the things that he did as the Nixon, as the Nixon administration launched this war on drugs. One of the things that he did was he helped design and well, really carry out, this border blockade called Operation Intercept, in which the border the whole Arizona, well, the whole United States-Mexico border was shut down. And everybody coming into the United States was searched for drugs. And you can imagine the nightmare this caused as well as the indignity? I mean, agents were searching in the hairdos of women who had, you know at that point there were beehive hairdos, and agents were combing through these women's hair looking for drugs. It was, it was a nightmare and ultimately the next administration stopped it, you know, from going forward after so much pressure from the government. But Nixon was eager to, there were some elections coming up and Nixon was eager to have the House and Senate turn, you know, be completely Republican, and that was the reason for that. Arpaio learned then that the border was a fertile field for, uh, I think, media attention. 

 

LG: 

We're jumping ahead again, but we need to get to our Arpaio as Sheriff./ As Sheriff in the early 2000s you note that he isn't initially interested in taking up the cause of immigration enforcement. Why did he change his mind in around 2006? 

 

TGS: 

In 2006, a man went out in the desert. Uh, a guy who seemed to have some mental issues. He went out in the desert to an area where, to a rest stop on the highway close to the border and it was an area where unauthorized immigrants were known to be picked up and chauffeured to different parts after crossing the desert. 

This guy his name was Patrick Hasb or Hob. We never quite figured out how to pronounce his last name. Anyway, he held these migrants at gunpoint and called the Sheriff's Office and Arpaio’s deputies arrested Haab because they said, "hey, you can't hold people at gunpoint, that's against the law." 

And Arpaio’s base was furious with him. And as we talked earlier, Lou, you know Arpaio cared a lot about how he was portrayed in the media and his fans began writing letters to the editor and this, you know was very upsetting to him. And the letters to the editor were complaining about Arpaio. 

And so, he pivoted then to immigration enforcement when he saw how popular it was with his base. He also denies this and says that he did not. He says that, you know, it was just he had new laws to enforce and he enforced them. 

 

LG: 

By the time SB 1070s passed in 2010, though -  one of the toughest anti-immigration laws passed at the time - the papers please law, some call it, Arpaio was all in on the immigration enforcement sweeps. Where and who were the people beginning to gain traction in organizing against these policies and Arpaio’s department.

 

TGS: 

The resistance to Arpaio and some of these really constitutionally sketchy immigration laws that we saw in Arizona, like SB1070, and like the human smuggling law and the employer sanctions law. A resistance had already risen up to fight these, and they really started, you know, and kind of in the earlish 2000s. Fighting sort of a wave of immigration laws and measures and policies that seemed very much to the men and women in the resistance as a slap not only at immigrants but at the entire Mexican American community. 

And so they started rising up.

One of them is Lydia Guzman, who came to Arizona in the late 1990s, and it came to be with her family, but she had a background as an activist in California. And she began a quite an early resistance to some of these laws and to Arpaio.

Another is a very well-known name. Alfredo Gutierrez, who was mentored by Cesar Chavez and was a Chicano activist who has devoted his entire life to fighting injustices. He started very early and continued throughout this resistance. 

And yet another was a young university student who had grown up undocumented in Tucson. Ultimately, he's now an American citizen, and he's actually a Phoenix City Council member. and his name is Carlos Garcia. 

And there were so many, there were hundreds of people who joined together. And the whole idea of this resistance, not only to Arpaio, but to some to these laws that they felt targeted people of color and were unconstitutional, the whole idea behind this resistance was to have a multi-pronged approach and that included fighting in the courts, on the streets, in the voting booth, in the halls of Congress and in the public square. And we tell the story of how these people, you know, sometimes succeeded and sometimes failed, and how their activism impacted their personal lives. But they never gave up. They were there for the long haul. 

 

LG:  

Terry Greene Sterling is the co-author, along with Jude Joffe-Block, of the book, Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Versus the Latino Resistance

 

There was just too much to get to this week, so we'll have part two of our conversation next week on Arizona Edition.  We'll talk more about the resistance movement against Arpaio and what impact it could continue to have on Arizona political.

Join me next week for Part 2 of my conversation with Terry Greene Sterling.