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Late August 2017 was supposed to be a celebratory time for Joe Arpaio. The former Maricopa county sheriff had just received Donald Trump’s first presidential pardon after being found guilty of criminal contempt of court.
The pardon meant Arpaio was spared a criminal sentence for a federal misdemeanor that could have included up to six months in prison. At a family dinner at a local restaurant the night he received it, he was barely able to touch his linguine with clams and calamari – he had been too busy fielding congratulatory phone calls and media inquiries.
But Trump’s pardon could not redeem the political brand of Arpaio, then 85, who was once known as “America’s toughest sheriff,” nor would it help the president’s own long-term popularity in Arizona. Arizona’s electorate was changing, quickly. The state’s extreme immigration laws and Arpaio’s style of enforcement – which in both cases, federal courts had found some aspects unconstitutional – had inspired an energetic, grassroots resistance movement that was reshaping the politics of the state.
Instead of having his reputation reinstated with the Trump pardon, Arpaio was met with a fierce backlash. “I’ve got two new titles now,” Arpaio told us weeks after he was pardoned. “‘The disgraced sheriff,’ that’s everywhere, ‘disgraced sheriff.’ And the other one is ‘racist.’ … I lost my ‘America’s toughest sheriff’ title.”
Elected sheriff of Maricopa county – which includes Phoenix and Arizona’s most populous county – in 1992, Arpaio once was one of the state’s most popular politicians.
He grew up in Springfield, Massachusetts. His father, Ciro Arpaio, an Italian citizen, had immigrated to the US in the 1920s, a time when many Americans viewed Italian immigrants as criminally inclined, disease-spreading, job-stealing, shifty, swarthy-skinned invaders.
As a child, Arpaio said, he took in the anti-immigrant taunts, and pretended to ignore them. That’s what you did back then, he said.
The immigrant’s son grew up to be an unapologetic immigration enforcer, delivering the hardline policies that a growing base of Republican voters in Arizona supported. His deputies helped turn tens of thousands of immigrants over to Ice for deportation. They rounded up day laborers, raided businesses to bust unauthorized immigrant employees working with fake papers, and swarmed neighborhoods where they arrested undocumented drivers and passengers found after stopping cars for minor traffic infractions.
His tactics had helped nurture a climate of vitriol against Mexican immigrants in Maricopa county, not so unlike the anti-immigrant hate he had experienced first-hand. Arpaio launched an immigration hotline in 2007 “for citizens to report illegal aliens.” Sheriff’s office records show the move unleashed a flood of tips.
County residents wanted Arpaio to investigate their immigrant neighbors and check out a local McDonald’s where the staff suspiciously spoke Spanish. An anonymous hotline caller expressed a desire to “shoot” a Mexican-born activist who was one of Arpaio’s vocal critics, “if I could get away with it.”
Arizona’s bitter immigration wars, and Arpaio’s role in them, helped his political brand – for a time. He had been re-elected to a fifth term, his last, in 2012 when he was 80. But his immigration stance led to his political downfall the following election cycle.
In 2016, a Latino-led grassroots movement that had spent the previous decade protesting the sheriff’s immigration enforcement tactics, collecting evidence for lawsuits, empowering immigrant communities to know their rights, and registering new voters, had focused their energy on their biggest voter mobilization drive yet. Young people, who had come of age fearing Arpaio’s deputies might deport their immigrant family members, had become eligible voters and registered others.
At the same time, moderate Republicans, irritated by Arpaio’s mounting legal fees and controversies, had backed his Democratic challenger. Even as Maricopa county voters helped Trump win the presidency, they rejected their longtime sheriff.
Meanwhile, Arpaio was facing legal backlash. Along the years, Arpaio had ignored a federal judge’s order that barred his law enforcement agency from detaining undocumented immigrants who had not been suspected or accused of crimes – and turning them over for deportation.
In 2016, the Obama administration’s justice department had announced plans to prosecute Arpaio for criminal contempt of court.
Trump’s 2017 pardon provided relief, and hope for a political rebirth. “He is loved in Arizona,” Trump told reporters of Arpaio days after the pardon. “Sheriff Joe protected our borders. And Sheriff Joe was very unfairly treated by the Obama administration, especially right before an election – an election that he would have won.”
It did not take long, however, for legal scholars, newspaper editorial boards and historians to pen the rebuke, labeling the pardon an abuse of power, an impeachable offense, unconstitutional, a dog whistle to white supremacists in Trump’s base, cronyism, or any combination of these.
“Trump’s pardon elevates Arpaio once again to the pantheon of those who see institutional racism as something that made America great,” read an editorial in the Arizona Republic.
The same piece called a federal judge’s guilty verdict against Arpaio “a dose of hard-won justice for a too-flamboyant sheriff who showed little respect for the constitution as he made national news as an immigration hardliner – and let real crimes go uninvestigated.”
News outlets revisited years worth of negative coverage about Arpaio, including a class action federal lawsuit filed a decade earlier, in which Latino motorists in Maricopa county had shown that Arpaio’s immigration tactics had violated their civil rights and resulted in racial profiling.
By September 2017, it seemed the controversy had left Arpaio surprised, angry and bewildered.
“I’m not a racist,” he told us. “You know that. Everybody knows that.”
When Arpaio now checked his email, he said, he found a message that called him a “Sicko. Sadist. Depraved vile criminal,” and expressed cruel, violent wishes. Another letter used anti-Italian slurs to address him as a “Fat, Greaseball Dago Piece of Shit,” and referred to the author’s desire to one day “piss on that WOP grave of yours”.
In January 2018, Arpaio announced he would run for an open US Senate seat in that year’s election. But he had lost his once loyal Republican base. He came in third place out of three candidates in the GOP primary.
I think the defeat of Arpaio made it tangible that we can defeat the villains that haunt our dreams
Even though Arpaio was sidelined in the 2018 election, his legacy continued to galvanize activists and voters. From 2014 to 2018, Latino voter turnout in Arizona jumped from 32% to 49%. In those four years, a few Latino activists who had organized against Arpaio and Arizona’s spate of extreme immigration laws, won seats as Democrats in the Arizona statehouse, chipping away at the Republican majorities. The Latino vote helped Democrat Kyrsten Sinema defeat the Republican Martha McSally for the Senate seat that Arpaio had wanted.
Some on the ground organizers credited the surge in Latino turnout in part to voters seeing Arpaio’s defeat two years earlier.
Alejandra Gomez, a Mexican American activist with Living United for Change in Arizona who helped mobilize voters in 2016 and 2018, said seeing Arpaio lose and a ballot initiative to raise the minimum wage pass had helped convince some first time voters the following election cycle that the act of voting could make a difference.
“Every step of the way we have been saying we are going to fight for our community. By that point – we actually delivered,” Gomez said.
That same momentum, Gomez predicted at the time, would spill over to the next presidential cycle in 2020.
“We demonstrated that it is possible to defeat someone like Arpaio, so it is possible also to defeat someone like Trump,” she said.
Still Arpaio’s political ambitions weren’t over. In 2020, he ran for his old job as sheriff in the Republican primary. He crisscrossed the county in a campaign bus plastered with a photo of him with Trump and the slogan, “Make Maricopa county safe again.” The race was close, but again he lost.
Meanwhile, the grassroots organizers who had learned how to inspire voters in their fight against Arpaio channeled their energy to mobilizing voters of color.
Arizona voters by a narrow margin, picked a Democrat for president for only the second time since 1952, helping cement Joe Biden’s win and Trump’s defeat. Democrat Mark Kelly won his race for a US Senate seat.
Maria Castro, a 27-year-old Mexican American activist who first began registering new Latino voters in Maricopa county as a high schooler in 2011, noticed the people whose doors she knocked on in 2020 were unusually eager to vote.
“This time around, people were like, ‘Yes, we’re ready to get rid of Trump,’ ” Castro told us. “I think the defeat of Arpaio made it tangible that we can defeat the villains that haunt our dreams.”
Arpaio, now 88, may have lost his last three races, but he is holding out hope that the same will not hold true for the man he calls his hero, Trump. “I got beat, came right around and ran again,” Arpaio told us. “So I would like to see him run again.”
Jude Joffe-Block and Terry Greene Sterling are the authors of DRIVING WHILE BROWN: Sheriff Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance, a new book that tells the story of Arpaio’s rise and fall as the sheriff of Arizona’s most populous county and the determined Latino resistance that fought his unconstitutional policing. Driving While Brown is published by University of California Press and is available on 20 April.