Joe Arpaio called himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
And it was the title that stuck for the former Maricopa County Sheriff as he became one of the country’s most-feared immigration enforcers.
His diehard supporters embraced the title, too, during his nearly two-decade reign—even as a wave of Latino-led activists brought down one of Arizona’s most controversial figures.
Journalists Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block covered Arpaio’s rise and downfall firsthand. They are the authors of the book “Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Versus the Latino Resistance.” The nonfiction book chronicles Arpaio, alongside the new generation of activists determined to stop Arpaio, reform unconstitutional policing, and fight for Latino civil rights.
Arpaio carried out workplace raids and conducted regular sweeps through Latino neighborhoods. The deputies would utilize minor traffic violations as an opportunity to take those suspected of being undocumented into custody and turn them over to Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
During an interview with The Copper Courier Wednesday, Greene Sterling recounted how she watched the fear-inducing immigration raids under Arpaio in disbelief. She specifically remembered watching fear sweep through the community of Guadalupe—a ¾ square mile city nestled between Phoenix and Tempe in southern Maricopa County that is 40% Yaqui and 60% Mexican American.
“I couldn’t believe I was in the United States of America. The streets were empty except for deputies pulling over cars with brown people in them—brown drivers and passengers,” she said.
US citizens hide in their houses in fear as MCSO deputies swept the streets, stopping anyone they suspected of being undocumented immigrants simply due to their skin color.
“They were terrified,” Greene Sterling said
Arizona’s dominant anti-immigrant rhetoric emboldened Arpaio. The state welcomed a number of anti-immigrant policies during this same time period, including the controversial SB 1070. The “show me your papers” law required state law enforcement to ask those they suspected of being undocumented to provide proof of legal immigration status during routine traffic stops. It was the strictest anti-immigration legislation in the country at the time.
Arpaio Inspired Unstoppable Wave of Activists
Arpaio first worked in the early iterations Drug Enforcement Association before running for sheriff. He frequently used characters in his undercover work, creating various personas for undercover drug buys.
Greene Sterling thinks he created his America’s Toughest Sheriff persona in the same vein. He embraced untraditional tactics in this self-created role, making headlines worldwide for his attention-drawing policies. He was notorious for forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and the creation of the outdoor prison known as Tent City that Arpaio himself once described as a “concentration camp.”
“To me, they feel like symbols of humiliation—of powerless people by a bully,” Greene Sterling said.
His immigration enforcement drew the ire of local activists. The Latino-led coalition composed of undocumented immigrants and US citizens alike made it their mission to get Arpaio out of office.
“The resistance that popped up was led by old Chicanos and young immigrants and day laborers and their allies,” Greene Sterling said. “It was a powerful resistance and … the marches and Arpaio’s raids and all the things that happened in Arizona at that time were evidence of the power of this resistance against the raids.
He was eventually sued over his department’s policy of racially profiling Latinos and was ordered to stop detaining them based on suspicions that they weren’t in the country legally.
Arpaio and Trump
Arpaio aligned himself with former President Donald Trump long before he was elected president. The sheriff was one of the first to stump for Trump during his 2016 run for president. Greene Sterling speculated both men needed attention and would do anything to get it.
“I think Trump admired and studied Arpaio’s anti-immigration hardlines, stances and rhetoric,” Greene Sterling said.
Arpaio was ultimately convicted of criminal contempt, but his relationship with Trump paid off as the president gave the disgraced sheriff his first pardon.
His 2016 run for sheriff was unsuccessful, as was his 2018 bid for Congress and a 2020 attempt to oust current MCSO Sheriff Paul Penzone—a Democrat—in the primary.
Arpaio is now close to 90 years old and his wife, Ava, recently died. Yet Greene Sterling says Arpaio claims he’s still busy and working on a documentary.
It’s possible he’ll run again, but Greene Sterling says he’s a marginalized figure on the political scene now.