Past Event

America’s Worst Sheriff? Hunger Strikes, Human Rights, and the State of Law Enforcement

In recent months, the focus of immigrant communities has landed squarely on Arizona. The state has been at the forefront of legislative initiatives that many say punish and criminalize undocumented immigrants. Recent laws require companies throughout the state to participate in the E-Verify program, an program that electronically verifies the employment eligibility of newly hired employees. Illinois has banned this program. Other recent Arizona laws have declared undocumented migrants to be their own coyotes (a person who helps others in illegally crossing the border) which makes them eligible for criminal human smuggling charges for smuggling themselves across borders.   

Janet Napolitano, the former Governor of Arizona, was picked by the Obama administration to head the Department of Homeland Security. She is now overseeing the implementation of internal enforcement programs that tighten the network between local law enforcement and federal immigration enforcement activity.

The proudest proponent of such programs is in Napolitano’s old backyard, Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona. Under the Federal 287(g) program, he has deputized hundreds to participate in self-described volunteer posses that have implemented the controversial tactics of raiding local city halls in pursuit of janitors and setting up check-points in majority Latino and indigenous communities.

Many are not only angry about some of Sheriff Arpaio’s tactics, but also claim his reach is beyond enforcing immigration law. He is the only official to continue the use of chain gangs, dresses prisoners in pink underwear, and houses hundreds in "tent cities" he’s erected in the Arizona desert where they live outdoors in upwards of 120 degree weather.  A recent Pulitzer Prize-winning report cited that the rising rate of unsolved crimes results from the diversion of enforcement resources toward policing documentation.

Though Arpaio was recently elected to his fifth term in office, The New York Times named him the "Worst Sheriff in America." In the past week, more than 1,800 prisoners have gone on a lasting hunger strike to protest meals the sheriff states cost approximately fifteen cents each. He responded to the prisoners’ collective action by placing the entire jail system on lockdown and denying phone call and visitation rights.

Many view these actions in Arizona as a potentially troubling direction the U.S. could take with immigration enforcement. While some groups, such as the Arizona Minutemen, regularly rally to "Support Sheriff Joe," others worry that he marks a troubling turn away from a society that honors the standards of human and civil rights. They also worry that his tactics put public safety at risk when local police enforce federal immigration laws. With the former Arizona Governor in charge of Homeland Security and momentarily considered as a possible Supreme Court Judge, the models of Arizona have implications for all of us.

What affect does it have on police/community relations when interactions with law enforcement could result in immigration proceedings? What impact does this have on undocumented victims or witnesses of crimes? What rights do prisoners have and how do they deserve to be treated?  When local law enforcement is cited for racial profiling and violating residents’ civil rights, what is the responsibility of the federal government? Are there parallel examples in history that we can think of? Is Arizona a model of the rule of law to follow or a dangerous example of intolerance? 

Suggested Resources

This special Café Society topic was written by guest writer B. Loewe, board member of the Latino Union of Chicago.


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