As the country braces for another attempt at immigration reform on Capitol Hill later this year, it’s likely that we’ll see plenty more of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, his supporters and his detractors in the media. But if the past year is any indication, we may not hear from the people that are most affected by the Maricopa County, Ariz. sheriff’s policies—those who have been racially profiled, regardless of their immigration status.
Arpaio, who has been in office 16 years, bills himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” (Extra! 6/1/09) Denounced for brutal and unconstitutional practices by human rights advocates for more than a decade, the sheriff turned his sights to immigrants in 2006, soon after Arizona enacted a new anti-human-smuggling law that opened the door to new immigration prosecutions. Activists and local journalists say that Arpaio’s policies now unfairly target people with brown skin.
They accuse sheriff deputies of using any excuse to pull a car over when the driver appears Latino, to ask the driver and passengers about their nationality and immigration status—including many U.S.-born citizens. And Arpaio organizes “saturation” patrols and anti-immigrant sweeps in Latino neighborhoods that a local East Valley Tribune investigation (7/11/08) found are done “without any evidence of criminal activity,” in violation of federal civil rights regulation.
Aside from racial profiling, immigrant rights activists and lawyers contend the sheriff is overreaching his county position through his broad interpretation of a federal program called 287(g), which permits local law enforcement to enforce federal immigration law (ACLU, 3/4/09). Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon wrote two letters to then-Attorney General Michael Mukasey demanding an FBI civil rights investigation into Arpaio’s practices in 2008. In March 2009, Barack Obama’s Department of Homeland Security launched a civil rights investigation of the racial profiling allegations. Meanwhile, Arpaio and his supporters say deputies are simply doing their jobs.
Now in his fifth term in office, the media-savvy Arpaio is comfortable on screen and affable with hosts. Unsurprisingly, he’s a frequent guest of CNN’s chief immigrant-basher Lou Dobbs (Extra!, 1-2/04), who was once told by Arpaio during an interview (11/12/07) that it was an “honor” to be called a member of the KKK. But Dobbs isn’t the only CNN personality who has a chummy relationship with the controversial sheriff; when Larry King interviewed Arpaio in April (4/16/09), the host reminded the sheriff that he “always loves talking to [him].”
Arpaio has been interviewed or featured on cable television at least 21 times in the past year when the topic is immigration, 17 of those times on CNN. Yet in that same year, those targeted by Arpaio’s policies have only twice been included in the conversation.
From time to time, critics have been invited to balance Arpaio’s sometimes incredible statements. But journalists’ notion of balance doesn’t always mean a great deal of dissent on the screen. In one instance (4/16/09), CNN matched Arpaio against Juan Hernandez, a dual U.S./ Mexican citizen who served under former Mexican President Vicente Fox and as Hispanic outreach director for Sen. John McCain’s U.S. presidential campaign. Though an advocate for immigration reform, Hernandez is no friend to immigrants when it comes to border militarization; when anchor Roland Martin asked if it was a “good idea” to “send large numbers of troops to the border,” Hernandez responded, “If we are going to use that army so that we have a war on drugs in this nation, as we should have, I think it’s great.”
In another case, Rev. Al Sharpton appeared on the Ed Show with Ed Schultz (MSNBC, 4/9/09) after Sharpton’s National Action Network called for Arpaio’s resignation. Comparing Arizona to “pre-Mandela South Africa,” Sharpton argued that the complaint “is not about what he’s doing with illegal immigrants,” but about how the sheriff’s policies are affecting “legal citizens, people who have been born, raised here, are legal citizens, that have been pulled over, harassed.”
What is remarkable about the exchange between Schultz and Sharpton is not merely the implication that only what happens to “legal citizens” is of concern, but the omission of the voice of any person directly affected by the sheriff’s policies from the dialogue.
Aside from extremely short soundbites from an undocumented man and woman in a brief report on CNN’s Newsroom (7/17/08), only one cable show found in the Nexis database included the perspective of an actual person affected by Arpaio’s tactics: CNN’s State of the Union (2/15/09) featured the voice of a woman named Rubi in the 9 a.m. hour, and re-packaged twice the same day.
The State of the Union segment featured an interview with Arpaio, and also spoke at length about immigration and the border with Sen. McCain (R.-Ariz.), the Border Patrol’s Chad Smith and Mike Lowrie, and Father John Herman. Host John King told McCain: “We sat down with Sheriff Arpaio this week here while we were here in Arizona, but we also talked to a woman named Rubi, who is in this country illegally and recently lost her job. Let’s listen for just a second.” Through a translator, Rubi said: “The reason I came here was to work and live with dignity. And I don’t understand why I have to show these documents.” King allowed McCain—and the entire nation—to hear someone contextualize her first-hand experience, if only for “a second.”
Rubi, a single mother who recently lost her job and feared getting picked up by sheriff deputies, was included once again in the program, but her voice was certainly far outweighed by people much less affected by Arpaio’s policies. In total, State of the Union aired eight sentences from the undocumented woman who literally hid in shadows during the interview out of fear she might be deported.
In March, the Phoenix New Times began a series to introduce readers to the reality of what happens to people with brown skin in Arpaio’s Maricopa County. The first installment, headlined “Are Your Papers in Order?” (3/19/09), detailed the harassment of the Sanchez family of Guadalupe, Ariz., by Arpaio’s deputies; the family says they have been targeted for taking a public stance against Arpaio’s so-called “crime suppression” sweeps that unconstitutionally target people with brown skin.
Writer Michael Lacey explained that in April 2008, some 200 deputies and “posse members”—civilian volunteers that Arpaio authorizes to enforce laws—held a two-day operation, in marked and unmarked patrol cars and on horseback, on the tiny town of Guadalupe, population 5,500. Andrew Sanchez “ringed the town with signs warning the residents that Arpaio was coming,” and while driving through town with “Go Home Arpaio” and “Proud to be Brown” painted on his windows, he was pulled over and ticketed—for honking his horn. A judge dismissed the ticket, but Sanchez says his family has been targeted ever since.
For example, U.S.-born Elaine Sanchez, a Yaqui Native American mother of six, was followed home by deputies who grabbed her when she tried to enter her house, throwing her to the dirt and handcuffing her as some of her children looked on. Deputies told Sanchez her crime was driving a vehicle while the license plate light was out—but they never ticketed her for that offense. Instead they charged Sanchez with disorderly conduct, a charge that was later dismissed by a court judge.
Members of the Sanchez family, along with all the other people that have been targeted in Maricopa County because of their skin color, are true experts. They know the story, and what it means when local authorities try to enforce federal immigration law and use racial profiling to do so. The Phoenix New Times (3/19/09) promises more stories that feature “people swept up in the madness.” The rest of the media should follow its lead.
Aura Bogado is a journalist with Pacifica Radio.