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Ruben Navarrett Jr / Politics

Could the Laugh Be On Sheriff Joe?

SAN DIEGO -- Whether it's by feeding prisoners green bologna or outfitting them in pink underwear, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Ariz., has always been good for a laugh.

His peculiar sense of humor is on display now that an audio recording has surfaced of him yukking it up at a fundraiser in 2009 for an anti-illegal-immigration group in Texas.

According to The Associated Press, the sheriff made fun of the fact that federal authorities had opened an investigation of him on multiple fronts.

That investigation followed a civil rights probe of whether his deputies engaged in racial and ethnic profiling of Latinos as part of a crackdown on illegal immigrants. Meanwhile, the FBI is looking into allegations that the sheriff abused his power by investigating judges and other county officials in Arizona who dared to challenge him.

As I noted in a previous column, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow last year slammed Arpaio in a case involving a civil rights lawsuit from 2007. In the suit, sheriff's deputies were accused of racial profiling by using traffic stops as an excuse for immigration sweeps. Snow issued legal sanctions against Arpaio for destroying documents and also barred the sheriff and his deputies from detaining people for being in the country illegally. The judge also criticized deputies for circulating emails that "compared Mexicans to dogs."

About the same time, the Justice Department issued a report that accused the sheriff's office of having a "pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos."

In speaking to the group in Houston, Arpaio seemed proud of the fact that he was not cooperating with the federal investigations, and boasted that his deputies were still rounding up illegal immigrants.

"After they went after me," Arpaio told the group, Texans for Immigration Reform, "we arrested 500 more just for spite."

The crowd roared its approval. Of course. What's not to love about sworn law enforcement officers who are entrusted with the power to deprive people of their liberty acting out of spite?

I'm not surprised. Take it from someone who has written about Arpaio for 15 years, dating back to when I worked for The Arizona Republic -- for Sheriff Joe, belligerent is just another big word.

In an interview with the AP, Arpaio contended that his comments were "not official, under-oath speeches" as much as casual remarks to a friendly crowd that supports his efforts to crack down on illegal immigration. The only mistake, he said, was in using the wrong figure. He had said 500, but it was more like "thousands."

This story breaks just as the Supreme Court hears a legal challenge to Arizona's immigration law, which requires local and state police to do something they are not trained to do -- enforce federal immigration law. The justices will consider whether such an attempt to regulate U.S. immigration policy is unconstitutional and leads to just the kind of abuses that have earned Arpaio the attention of federal authorities.

Immigration enforcement is not work for amateurs. There is nothing wrong with the practice as long as it is federal officials who are doing the enforcing. When local and state police take a stab at it, things are bound to get messy. People get profiled. Dark skin and Spanish accents become a shortcut around probable cause. And the civil rights of U.S.-born Hispanics are likely to be violated.

But here's the rest of the story, and it explains why Arpaio isn't afraid of the Obama administration. Both are partners in this endeavor. The Justice Department may be investigating Arpaio. But, in another part of the Cabinet, the Department of Homeland Security is enabling him. Immigration officials are taking full advantage of Arpaio's enthusiastic approach to rounding up illegal immigrants. After all, once these people are in custody, they're handed over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement where they're added to the monthly deportation figures that the administration touts to show critics that it's tough on illegal immigration.

And this part of the story isn't the least bit amusing.

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Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben(at symbol)rubennavarrette.com

Copyright 2012 Washington Post Writers Group



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