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This excerpt is adapted with permission from Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Versus the Latino Resistance by Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block, a deeply reported account of Arizona’s bellwether immigration battles, published by University of California Press.
The window shade was drawn, giving the artificially lit room a bunkerlike feeling. Outside cameras fed video of an empty porch onto a monitor above a desk, where an 85-year-old man bit glumly into a meaty deli sandwich.
It was Aug. 8, 2017. Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona, knew he would soon be sentenced for his crime. And even though a prison sentence was a long shot for a federal misdemeanor, the very idea that it was a remote possibility angered and unnerved him.
He had stacked printouts of personalized Google alerts and emails, along with a few fan letters, on his desk. They were comforting proof to him that he was still famous and his supporters had not abandoned him. He’d long branded himself as “America’s Toughest Sheriff,” the guy who forced many inmates in his jails to live and sleep in uncomfortably hot tents, wear pink underwear, buy their own salt and pepper, eat gloppy, sometimes moldy food, and undergo other hardships geared toward getting more press.
As sheriff, he’d apprehended and jailed and sent tens of thousands of undocumented immigrants into deportation proceedings in Maricopa County. He had become known to those who opposed him as much more than an “immigration hard-liner” or “border hawk.” His critics viewed him, instead, as a 21st century patriarch of the restrictionist immigration movement, which is rooted in a dark history of eugenics and white supremacy dating back at least to the early decades of the 20th century.
As Arpaio developed his brand, it helped him keep his office into his 80s. It also embroiled him in a history-making federal class-action lawsuit, in which Latino drivers and passengers successfully sued Arpaio and his agency, the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office, for racial profiling. This lawsuit, in turn, had resulted in court-ordered reforms, including an explicit judicial order forbidding Arpaio or anyone in his agency from detaining undocumented immigrants who had not been accused of crimes and turning them over to federal authorities for deportation. Arpaio had disobeyed the court order for 17 months, two federal judges ruled, which led to a criminal contempt-of-court guilty verdict on July 31, 2017, and an upcoming sentencing that October, which could include up to six months in a federal prison.
Even though the sentencing was still a few months away, people wondered what might happen. Would Arpaio get off with a fine or probation? Or would marshals shackle Arpaio and lead him out of the courtroom? Would they distribute his mug shot on the internet? Would he be marched in front of the cameras in a perp walk? Would Arpaio be confined to a prison cell?
He had long professed his innocence. He viewed his conviction as the end result of a conspiracy by loyalists of former President Barack Obama who were still embedded in the United States Department of Justice, which had successfully prosecuted him in a Phoenix courtroom.
I’m the victim, he had told us more than once.
On this August day, we were perched, as usual, in a couple of small chairs facing his large desk. Arpaio was telling us about his plan to get President Donald Trump’s attention. Two dried-out ballpoint pens commemorating his 25 years as a federal narcotics agent sat on his desk. A name plaque read Sheriff Joe Arpaio, America’s Toughest Sheriff. He sat in a high-backed black executive office chair. His office, a corner suite on the first floor of a building he owned in Fountain Hills, the town where he lived some 30 miles northeast of Phoenix, was a museumlike tribute to himself. Shelves in the hallway leading to the bathroom were crammed with police-themed tchotchkes—coffee mugs, hats, bobblehead dolls, and a “border wall brick”—all of which reminded him of his 24 years as sheriff of the nation’s fourth most populous county, now home to about 4.5 million people.
Carefully arranged framed newspaper and magazine articles, photographs, and letters of commendation dating as far back as the 1960s hung on all the walls. He’d positioned the most important photos so he could point to them from his desk—a picture of a younger Arpaio mugging with President George W. Bush, another of Arpaio with thinning, slicked-back graying hair shaking hands with President Barack Obama, and several of Arpaio posing with Donald Trump as a candidate and newly elected president. He’d endorsed Trump early. Once, at a campaign event, a photographer caught a moment in which Trump wrapped his arm around Arpaio, who half-smiled, coyly. Later, Trump autographed the picture: I Love You Joe! Donald Trump.
Trump, 14 years younger, was Arpaio’s “only hero.” They traveled “the same highway.” They would “never surrender” as they battled forces that tried to bring them down—mainstream media, big government, leftist judges, open borders liberals, or any combination thereof.
And they both understood the “immigration problem.”
In our meetings, Arpaio had told us once that should he be convicted, he didn’t need to be rescued with a presidential pardon. He could take care of himself.
But we sensed his bravado failed him after he was convicted. After marching shackled immigrants in front of the media in “perp walks,” he understood what might lie ahead for him. Only Donald Trump could rescue him. The president reportedly had asked his appointee, United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions, if he could drop the prosecution of Arpaio. Sessions had refused, and the case went to trial. The president had planned to pardon Arpaio should he be found guilty. But more than a week had passed since Arpaio’s guilty verdict, and Trump had stayed mum.
Arpaio pinned the president’s unresponsiveness on White House aides who didn’t like Arpaio and thus didn’t tell Trump about Arpaio’s predicament. So Arpaio had strategized to get the president’s attention.
A few days before, the former sheriff had spoken with Jerome Corsi, a conspiracy theorist who, like Trump and Arpaio, had repeatedly alleged that Barack Obama had a fake birth certificate. Corsi wrote for the right-wing extremist website Infowars.
The website ran videos featuring Alex Jones, another conspiracy theorist, who maintained, among other things, that the 2012 massacre of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School was a fabricated event meant to undermine the gun rights of Americans. Infowars also published pieces that embraced anti-immigrant views.
The president read Infowars.
Arpaio knew this, and so likely did Corsi, who wrote an Infowars story about Arpaio’s pressing need for a presidential pardon. The piece was headlined “ ‘Where Is Trump?’ Sheriff Arpaio Asks.”
“After being convicted of criminal misdemeanor contempt, former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio has come out swinging, arguing the judge was biased and asking why President Trump is abandoning him, considering Arpaio was an early campaign supporter whose conviction reflects the determination to enforce immigration laws the Trump Justice Department is now exhibiting,” Corsi wrote.
Other media took the Infowars plea mainstream. The Arizona Republic, the largest newspaper in Arizona, reported Arpaio would accept a presidential pardon. So did Politico.
Arpaio sat back and waited.
Four days after Arpaio told us about his scheme to get Trump’s attention, white nationalists gathered for a “Unite the Right” alt-right, neo-Nazi protest in Charlottesville, Virginia. The protesters included white supremacists and the Ku Klux Klan, who had long supported Trump and his pro-white, anti-Muslim, anti-brown-immigrant rhetoric.
They had gathered in Charlottesville to protest the removal of a monument honoring Confederate hero Gen. Robert E. Lee.
Even after a white supremacist plowed his car into the crowd of counterprotesters, killing one woman and injuring dozens of others, Trump caused a controversy when he said there were “very fine people on both sides.”
If Trump were to choose this post-Charlottesville moment to do what he planned to do anyway—issue his first presidential pardon to Joe Arpaio, so admired by white supremacists for his unsparing immigration sweeps—the pardon could accomplish multiple goals. It could save his friend. It could divert media attention away from Charlottesville. And the very act of pardoning a man so well regarded by the extreme right wing of the party could signal to Trump’s base that the president was still on their side.
As Arpaio sat in his house in Fountain Hills, Lydia Guzman stood with thousands of protesters who’d gathered around the Phoenix Convention Center, where President Donald Trump would soon hold a rally. It was late afternoon, Aug. 22, 2017. The hot, sloping sun tinted the white walls of St. Mary’s Basilica the color of desert honey. Guzman snapped photos with her Android smartphone. So many people had turned out to protest the president’s response to the Charlottesville violence and also the possible presidential pardon of Joe Arpaio. People on crutches, on walkers, in wheelchairs, on foot, on bikes, of all ages and ethnicities. People filled Monroe Street, sat on the Herberger Theater steps, and gathered around life-sized bronze sculptures of dancers. Some chanted. Others beat drums. They waved American flags. The thick air smelled of shampoo and sweat. People fanned themselves with baseball caps, sun hats, and signs: Things Are Not Alt-Right in the USA! No Nazis! No KKK! No White Supremacists! Hell No, Don’t Pardon Joe!
Since Trump’s election, Guzman felt that the vitriol against immigrants and minorities rampant in Arizona had spread across the country. Arpaio’s friendship with Trump had been one reason, among many others. But standing in the crowd, seeing the diversity of ethnicities and ages, she felt the Latino-led civil rights movement she had helped lead had won the narrative, in Arizona at least. Recent polling had showed about 50 percent of Arizonans opposed an Arpaio pardon. Only 21 percent supported it.
Just one month earlier, Guzman had been inside the Phoenix Convention Center where Trump now spoke. She’d been one of several local Latino activists feted by UnidosUS, a national Latino civil rights nonprofit once known as the National Council of La Raza.
The nonprofit had boycotted Arizona and Maricopa County several years before, when Sheriff Joe Arpaio was using restrictionist state laws as a justification to round up, criminalize, and turn over unauthorized immigrants for deportation.
Now, Arpaio, the patriarch of Arizona’s anti-immigrant movement, had been voted out of office in 2016 and faced prison time—key victories for the Latino-led movement that had risen up against Arpaio and the state laws he’d relied on. UnidosUS had chosen to have its 2017 conference in a city it once boycotted. This was a sign of the growing influence of Arizona’s Latino activists as role models for resistance to the anti-immigrant animus that had spread across the country with the Trump presidency.
Yet on this August afternoon, in the very same building where Guzman and other Arizona activists had been honored by UnidosUS, the president promoted the same anti-immigrant narrative they’d battled for years in the courts, on the streets, and in the hearts and minds of Arizonans.
Guzman watched men and women in American flag shirts and American flag baseball caps enter the convention center to attend the rally. Not that she’d ever care to, but she figured if she wore Old Glory couture, she would be accused of defacing the American flag.
Instead, she wore an embroidered brown tunic, black pants, and sensible black walking shoes. A short woman with carefully coiffed waves of black hair framing her round face and large dark eyes, she looked put together, confident and calm, but she felt ragged inside. All the speculation over the possible presidential pardon of Arpaio had left her out of sorts. For days, she’d tried to bolster the spirits of her friends and allies in the Latino community who worried Arpaio might get pardoned. Arpaio was no longer sheriff, everyone knew, but a presidential pardon for illegally rounding up Latino immigrants would be a symbolic slap in the face to the movement that had struggled for years to stop the local sheriff from violating the civil rights of brown-skinned Americans and Latino immigrants.
She’d been one of many in the movement who had taken on Arpaio when he was so powerful people were afraid of him. She had helped Latino drivers successfully sue the sheriff for racial profiling. That lawsuit had led to the guilty verdict that Arpaio hoped would be wiped away by the president.
Guzman knew many in her community yearned to see Arpaio get a taste of the humiliation he’d meted out to Latinos. Arpaio in a mug shot. Arpaio in handcuffs. Arpaio behind bars, if only for a day. But now, Guzman thought, it looked as if Trump would rescue Arpaio with a pardon before he was even sentenced.
She figured the president might well pardon Arpaio that afternoon, just to humiliate the movement.
“The fact that he was going to come to Arizona in our face, under our noses to do this, I think that was the biggest insult,” she told us. “It was more like he was taunting us and we couldn’t do anything about it. I felt helpless.”
Joe Arpaio watched the protest that Guzman attended on his large-screen television in his home on a cactus-stabbed hill in Fountain Hills. He saw the president, his hero, stroll out on a stage as speakers blared “God Bless the USA.” Among the thousands in the convention center, many shook red Make America Great Again posters, blue Drain the Swamp posters, and white Veterans for Trump posters.
“Ava,” Arpaio told his wife, “he’s going to say my name.” And soon, Trump did.
“So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” Trump asked the crowd.
The crowd chanted, “Pardon Joe! Pardon Joe!”
“I think he’s going to be just fine, OK?” The president smiled. “But,” he added, “I won’t do it tonight, because I don’t want to cause any controversy.”
Outside the convention center, phones lit up with text messages detailing Trump’s hints that likely he would soon pardon Arpaio. Guzman knew it would happen. And when it did, it would feel to her as though all the movement’s years of hard work were being discounted by Trump’s pen. And the suffering she’d witnessed—wrongfully detained and deported immigrants torn from their families—would be discounted too.
By Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block. University of California Press.
Really, she hated to say it—because he was always nice to her face—but she secretly thought of Arpaio as a cockroach. For decades, the movement had tried to sweep away Arpaio and everything he stood for.
But for now at least, he’d sidled into a dark space, out of reach.