Though No Longer Sheriff, Joe Arpaio Is Still a Polarizing Figure


This enduring prominence and the expressions of support from Mr. Trump suit some in Arizona just fine.

“I am all for the pardon of Sheriff Joe,” said Brian Ratchford, 47, a storage facility manager in Tucson who drove to Phoenix this week for Mr. Trump’s rally, hoisting a profanity-laced sign that warned Trump detractors against starting trouble, while carrying a gun in a hip holster adorned with a silver skull.

“He wasn’t profiling anyone,” Mr. Ratchford insisted.

“He has been convicted for doing his job. All of you media keep calling them undocumented aliens,” he said, referring to some Latino immigrants. “They are illegal aliens. Not in line with the law. Breaking the law.”

The discussion over whether Mr. Arpaio was enforcing, or breaking, the law offers a glimpse into the ways in which Arizona is shifting. The state sided with Mr. Trump, the candidate, in November, but as president, Mr. Trump has had a polarizing effect, energizing critics and supporters alike.

“Trump is Arpaio writ large for many conservatives in the state,” said Terry Greene Sterling, a writer-in-residence at Arizona State University who has tracked Mr. Arpaio’s career for decades. “But for many Latinos and an increasingly diverse resistance, Arpaio is a symbol of everything that’s wrong with immigration policies.”

Mr. Arpaio started as a police officer in 1954, in Washington, and later worked for the Drug Enforcement Administration. He was first elected sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, in 1991. In nearly a quarter-century in office, he instituted a series of headline-grabbing practices: banning pornographic magazines in jail, erecting a tent city for prisoners, forcing inmates to wear pink underwear and even reviving the chain gang.

But he became most notorious as an immigration hard-liner. Mr. Arpaio supported sending more agents to the United States-Mexico border, and his department detained individuals beyond their court-ordered release dates, in order to turn them over to federal immigration authorities.


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The practices have since been embraced by the Trump administration, and Mr. Trump and Mr. Arpaio have a history of warm relations.

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Like Mr. Trump, Mr. Arpaio advanced the myth that President Barack Obama was not born in the United States. The sheriff was an early Trump endorser. At an Iowa event in January 2016, Mr. Arpaio introduced the then long-shot candidate as a “a great patriot.”

But last fall, as Mr. Trump was elected, Mr. Arpaio was voted out. He lost his re-election bid to Paul Penzone, a Phoenix police officer. Shortly afterward, Mr. Penzone began removing Mr. Arpaio’s name from an array of buildings, signs and vehicles, either by covering the lettering with reflective tape or by taking them down entirely.

Mr. Arpaio’s ouster came as he faced a criminal contempt of court charge. Last month, he was convicted of that charge, a misdemeanor. His lawyers said he would appeal.

In the meantime, Mr. Arpaio seems to retain a reservoir of loyal support. For instance, admirers of “America’s Toughest Sheriff” can pay $3,979 a person to travel with him to the D-Day beaches of Normandy and the Champagne region of France, a trip described as a “journey thru American history” by its operator, Conservative Tours of Chandler, Ariz.

The trip was originally scheduled for October, around the time that the sentencing for Mr. Arpaio is expected to take place. In a telephone interview, Mr. Arpaio said the trip was pushed to the start of next year for “rescheduling reasons.”

“I’m looking forward to visiting Normandy,” Mr. Arpaio said, adding that the experience of watching Mr. Trump on television lavishing praise on him in Phoenix was “humbling.”

“I heard the speech and also heard the large cheers that I got,” said Mr. Arpaio. He declined to say if he thought he was innocent or guilty of the contempt conviction, citing the ongoing status of the case. But when asked how he would respond to a pardon from Mr. Trump, he replied, “Well, I’m not going to turn it down.”

Whether he goes to jail, Mr. Arpaio’s loss in elections in November reflects broader demographic shifts that eroded support for him from seemingly unlikely quarters. Carlos Vélez-Ibáñez, a pioneering scholar of border studies, said that the growing number of Mormons in the state, especially those of Hispanic origin, helped tip the scales against Mr. Arpaio.


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“How ironic is that?” said Mr. Vélez-Ibáñez, referring to the presumption that Mormons generally vote for Republican candidates. “Many of the new adherents to the Mormon faith in Arizona are Mexicanos, and they don’t have much affection for the former sheriff.”

For some other Arizonans, their dislike of Mr. Arpaio is personal. Ms. Romero’s parents brought her to the United States from Mexico without legal documents when she was 3 years old. After she was arrested in one of Mr. Arpaio’s raids, she was charged with criminal impersonation because she had used her mother’s papers to get a job.

She now finds herself in a kind of limbo, at risk of deportation and unable to legally get a steady job. She remembers the chains she had to wear in one of Mr. Arpaio’s jails, and how she broke down in tears when his officers laughed at her immigration status while arresting her.

“My experience was devastating to myself and my family,” Ms. Romero said. “Arpaio’s people treated me like I was less than human, and now the president wants to pardon him after he broke the law. If he’s the real criminal, how is it that he can go free?”

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