America’s Toughest Sheriff swore in his new “illegal immigration posse” this week. And Latino activists, already rubbed raw by Arizona’s controversial new law criminalizing unauthorized migrants, are once again crying foul—arguing the posse could instill a menacing Minutemen mentality, as one advocate put it, and encourage posse members to go “hunting Mexicans.”
The group of mostly middle-aged or older white men dressed in brown uniforms with gold badges will assist Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies in such duties as “transporting illegal immigrants arrested for potential immigration violations,” “crowd control during demonstrations against the sheriff’s immigration policies” and “searching for load vehicles and drop houses.”
During the swearing-in ceremony, Arpaio, who first gained world fame for making inmates wear pink underwear, positioned his new posse near props that hinted of war — a helicopter, an off-road vehicle, and an armored personnel carrier with a long gun. Over half the 56 posse members were cleared to carry weapons, and all had received training in illegal immigration enforcement, Arpaio announced during the ceremony.
That’s little comfort to local Latino leaders, who view the new posse as a dangerous theatrical ruse intended as a smokescreen to draw attention away from Arpaio’s mounting legal problems—which could lead to the sheriff’s indictment.
“The sheriff fully understands whenever he gets involved in immigration enforcement it will distract the public from what is really troubling him, in this case all his legal problems,” says Danny Ortega, a Phoenix attorney and chairman of the board of the National Council of La Raza.
Those legal problems increased dramatically when Maricopa County officials in early November deputized six federal prosecutors to look into allegations that the sheriff’s office kept two sets of books in order to illegally funnel millions into other cash-strapped operations, including immigration enforcement
Arpaio was already the target of two ongoing federal probes into alleged abuse of power and civil rights violations. But deputizing the feds to investigate and, if necessary, prosecute state crimes, including more liberal extortion and fraud statutes that cast a wider net than similar federal laws, only increases the indictment possibility.
The posse could woo volunteers who are “emotionally attracted” to enforcing immigration. “That can be volatile,” Ortega says.
The move “enhances the U.S. attorneys’ ability to bring criminal charges,” says outgoing Maricopa County Attorney Richard Romley, a moderate Republican who was a key player in brokering the agreement to deputize the feds.
Empowering the feds to prosecute state crimes also means that Bill Montgomery, an illegal-immigration hardliner who defeated Romley in the mid-term election largely because he was endorsed by Arpaio, won’t have a hand in deciding how to solve Arpaio’s legal woes.
Arpaio won’t comment on his legal problems, but he’s said in the past that he’s done nothing wrong—arguing he’s the subject of an Obama administration witch hunt.
Lisa Allen, a spokeswoman for the sheriff’s office, wrote in an e-mail to The Daily Beast that attorneys have advised the sheriff’s office not to comment on “ongoing investigations involving the DOJ and other matters until they have come to a conclusion.”
“As for the claims by activists that Arpaio is mounting an illegal immigration posse as a ruse to distract attention from any legal woes, they are of course, incorrect, and perhaps doing a little ‘spinning’ of their own,”.
Lydia Guzman, a Phoenix Latina activist who warns immigrants of raids via text message alerts, says activists will do what they’ve always done – watch the sheriff, document any abuses, and train migrants about their civil rights should they be detained. “People can’t stop their lives and go into hiding,” she says.
As it stands, a lot of migrants have chosen not to hide but to leave the state. The Department of Homeland Security estimates that Arizona’s unauthorized population has dropped drastically from 560,000 in 2007 to about 460,000 in 2009.
The Pew Hispanic Center estimates that about 375,000 unauthorized immigrants live in Arizona. Harsh state laws, like SB 1070, which criminalizes people without papers for setting foot in Arizona, and a sour economy are probably to blame for the Latino exodus. But Arpaio claims there’s still a significant “illegal immigration problem” in Arizona.
Arpaio, who became sheriff in 1993 and faces re-election in 2012, already has a 3,000-member posse that assisted in his controversial immigration enforcement activities. He once told me he got the idea for his posse from all the Western movies he watched as a child.
Two new posse members are actually minor movie stars—action figure Steven Seagal and Lou Ferrigno, the former Incredible Hulk, who doesn’t even live in Arizona.Arpaio had named Ferrigno an “honorary deputy” in May so the Hulk could “bodyguard” the sheriff when he spoke at a friendly Tea Party rally. The bodyguard gig boosted publicity for both the sheriff and Ferrigno, who sells t-shirts and exercise equipment on line. Ferrigno says he’s signed on to the illegal immigration posse because he wants to support Arpaio’s efforts to curb illegal immigration.
Arpaio noted at the ceremony that other posse members include retired CEO’s, military officers, firefighters and college instructors who all “add expertise” to the illegal immigration battle.
It’s not clear how many of the “new” posse recruits are actually members of Arpaio’s old posse. One “new” volunteer is a former Arizona Republic reporter and an immigrant himself. (He’s not Latino.) He asked that his name not be used because he fears for his safety from activists on the other side of the immigration debate. He’s in his seventies, and has been a posse member for 10 years. He donates about 1,000 hours to the sheriff’s office annually. When I asked about the posse-as-distraction theory, he declined to answer and hobbled off to his car.
The new posse actually has one volunteer Latino trainer, Ray Munoz, who says he owns a “high-risk security agency.” Munoz has been a posse member for since 1995, and doesn’t feel conflicted about his new duty because the posse members “have good morals.”
The sheriff says he formed the new posse so that volunteers could feel they could “help in the fight against illegal immigration.”
That worries Ortega, of the National Council of La Raza. He warns that the illegal immigration posse could woo volunteers who are “emotionally attracted” to enforcing immigration.
“That can be volatile,” Ortega says.
Terry Greene Sterling is an Arizona journalist who blogs about immigration in Phoenix at terrygreenesterling.com. Her book, ILLEGAL, Life and Death in Arizona's Immigration War Zone, was published July 1st by the Globe Pequot Press.