Sheriff Joe Arpaio given a legal lesson on immigration

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio conducts a news conference in Phoenix last year.
(Matt York / Associated Press)

For years, Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has proudly boasted that he’s America’s toughest sheriff. Now it turns out the Arizona lawman charged with enforcing the law is actually guilty of breaking it. On Friday, U.S. District Judge Murray Snow found Arpaio and his deputies guilty of racially profiling Latinos and illegally detaining them, in violation of the 4th and 14th amendments.

Snow’s ruling simply confirms what Arpaio’s critics and victims have long known -- Maricopa’s sheriff abused his power, his deputies stopping and detaining anyone they believed was illegally in the country, based on little more than a person’s appearance or surname.


No doubt Arpaio will argue that he is the real victim and not the untold numbers of Latinos who were illegally stopped and detained. And the sheriff will probably argue that his brand of immigration enforcement is sanctioned by Arizona’s so-called show-me-your-papers provision of the noxious SB 1070 law that the U.S. Supreme Court let stand. But the sheriff is wrong on both counts.

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First, the Supreme Court’s decision last year that let stand the state provision requiring police to check the immigration status of anyone they stop or detain on a legitimate basis is not a free pass that allows Arpaio or any other law enforcement official to violate the Constitution. Justice Anthony M. Kennedy said as much in the decision, writing that “detaining individuals solely to verify the immigration status would raise constitutional concerns.” In other words, law enforcement officials can ask about immigration status, but it should not result in the prolonged detention of individuals, nor do the rules allow state officials to hold a person simply because they believe her or she is illegally in the United States.

Second, Arpaio is hardly a victim. The sheriff was found guilty based on a mountain of evidence, including his own press releases and statements, along with testimony from individuals that his department targeted simply because they were “driving while Latino” or “standing while looking Latino.” Those accounts include ones from Manuel Nieto and Velia Meraz, both U.S. citizens, who recalled how they were pulled over and handcuffed at gunpoint for no apparent reason other than that a deputy overheard them singing along to Spanish-language music.


Snow’s decision will hopefully put a stop to Arpaio’s unconstitutional brand of immigration enforcement, and remind other law enforcement agencies that there are limits to the authority they have to enforce federal immigration law. But it won’t stop the debate, nor the need for Congress to step in and replace a broken set of immigration rules with a comprehensive fix.



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