Policing Brown Bodies: Sheriff Arpaio’s Reign and Immigration Law Enforcement

By Mary Romero
President-Elect of the American Sociological Association

While immigration law enforcement is taking place on a national level, Arizona’s reputation as “ground zero” in the immigration debate resulted from the intense immigration legislative activity and forceful law enforcement that included white nativist vigilante involvement over the last decade.1  Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, former Sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, was a major set-back for immigrant and human rights activists who fought to remove him from office in 2016. The pardon is a pass for elected officials and police to violate the civil rights of Latinos.  Arpaio’s efforts to reinforce his reputation as the “toughest sheriff” included terrorizing the Latino community in Maricopa County.

His policing and comradery with white nativist anti-immigration vigilantism fits into Trump’s current immigration rhetoric. A major component of Joe Arpaio’s immigration law enforcement involved political spectacle and symbolic politics, which normalized human and civil rights violations and legitimated racism toward Mexicans and other racialized immigrants. I begin by reviewing the largely forgotten legislation passed in 1995, the Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA).

Next, I examine the strategies and practices by the Maricopa Sheriff Department during Joe Arpaio’s tenure as sheriff to point to the way that immigration law enforcement served as a spectacle that legitimizes vigilante activities. Vigilante activities are examined by focusing on anti-immigrant organizations’ activities allowed during immigration protests.

Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA)

To understand Trump’s characterization of Mexicans and Joe Arpaio’s policing campaign against Mexicans and other racialized Latinos, we must remember that the foundation for claiming that Mexican immigrants are criminals (rapists and drug dealers) was solidified in the legislation passed after the Oklahoma bombing to deter terrorism. The Anti-terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act (AEDPA) combined immigration, criminal and terrorism into one legislation, which blurred the distinctions between “alien immigrant” and “criminal.” Eliminating the distinction between undocumented workers and criminals provided Arpaio the platform to enter center stage in the immigration debate.  In previous immigration legislation, being an “alien immigrant” was an administrative violation attached to one’s status upon entering the U.S. without documentation.

This category included people who had overstayed their visas or had expired green cards, as well as some other noncriminal circumstances. “Criminal aliens” referred to immigrants who committed a crime or were engaged in illegal behavior. The third category of alien immigrants identified in this legislation are persons the state identifies as posing a grave risk to national security and are deportable as terrorists.

Co-mingling immigration and terrorism policies “fueled passage of a new summary exclusion procedure in 1996 by which a noncitizen could be bared admission into the country at the port of entry by an INS officer without judicial review” and the definition of “aggravated felony” was broadened and subjected immigrants to deportation without judicial review and mandatory detention.

Placing immigration under Department of Homeland Security provided the basis for nativist groups to argue that all immigrants are criminal and should be addressed with the same aggressive law enforcement aimed at terrorists, drug dealers and human smugglers. In establishing the Department of Homeland Security, immigration and criminal law enforcement were officially combined under the rhetoric of counter terrorism. Raids, detention, deportation and surveillance of noncitizens all became the concern of counterterrorism legislation, which included the USA Patriot Act, the Homeland Security Act and the enhanced Border Security and Visa Entry Reform Act.

By outlining the Office of Detention and Removal’s mission around concerns of public safety and national security, the collateral damage to families and communities was minimized or ignored. Connecting the War on Terror and the War on Drugs was a smooth transition into a campaign against narco–terrorism in 2002. Raids, detention, deportation and surveillance of noncitizens all became the concern of counterterrorism legislation. Substantive changes under Homeland Security legislation provided the foundation for emerging state and local anti-immigrant ordinances, increased use of surveillance and racial profiling, police engaging in unlawful breaking and entering of private residents, and other violations of the Fourth Amendment.

Overview of Symbolic Politics and Political Spectacles in Immigration Discourse

The significance of symbolic politics and political spectacles is in identifying the real consequences and costs of draconian immigration policy on communities of color. Coverage of political spectacles in the media serves to blur or erase public memory and condones racial profiling and violence against Latinos as unavoidable collateral damage in maintaining national security.  Modifying immigration raids to use similar equipment, strategies and armed military force deployed in major drug raids renders immigrants as dangerous and a threat to society.  The public spectacle of armed federal agents with rifles and bulletproof vests raiding homes, work sites and shopping malls reinforces support for more funding and resources toward immigration enforcement and the passage of draconian laws.  These tactics serve to create an illusion that the government is responding to a major danger threatening the country. These political actions have been called “pseudo-events” that provide public entertainment framed as news.  Press coverage of these pseudo-events has little if any context and most importantly do not report human and civil rights violations.

Numerous researchers have written extensively about the anti-immigration discourse as a major aspect in creating the spectacle and symbolic policies. Immigrant scholars note the inflated metaphors used to describe migration from Mexico as a crisis (e.g., Chavez 2001, 2008; Otto 2002). Politicians promoting an anti-immigration position frequently use carefully selected sound bites containing metaphors to highlight the “alien,” “foreign,” and “inferior” characteristics of non-citizens.  Symbolic language and spectacles clearly establish that immigration poses a national threat.

Agencies and news coverage of activities refer to persons arrested in terms related to non-humans such as “net of 56 captured” or “rounded-up.” Terms used to describe immigration raids and deportation programs add to the spectacle (such as, ‘combat’, ‘fighting’). The titles of immigration operations also capture the imagination (for example, Operation Return to Sender, Detention and Removal Operations, National Fugitive Operations Program, Agreements of Cooperation in Communities to Enhance Safety and Security, Operation Gatekeeper). Describing raids as the pursuit of investigations of violent crimes, human smuggling, gang organized crime activity, sex-related offenses, narcotics smuggling, and money laundering adds to the drama.

The military tone established in homeland security discourse and the increasing number of nativist extremist groups sets the background for claiming a Mexican invasion, a war within our borders and the threat immigrants and their families pose to the economic and security well-being of citizens’ families (Romero 2008). Interrogating anti-immigration discourse is crucial in following the immigration debate, policy, and law enforcement. A major ideology embedded in each continues to be white injury.

The anti-immigrant discourses that claim that immigrants pose a cultural, security and economic threat, are based on an ideology of white injury and casts white middle-class citizens as the victims (Cacho 2012). The list of white injury includes the erosion of public education, high unemployment and crime rates, the gang and drug problems, insufficient health care, reverse discrimination and the subordination of English and “white” culture. Instead, responsibility of the country’s problems is placed upon non-citizens employed as day or low-wage workers attempting to improve their living conditions. An ideology of white injury works as a significant symbolic device in establishing ambiguous meanings to arouse strong xenophobia feelings based on emotional narratives. Accurate facts and context can thus be ignored.

Source: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement


The U.S. government has a long immigration history of responding to the ideology of white injury and in creating fear by scapegoating migrants for social problems.  Since Operation Wetback, immigration raids have been used to respond to unemployment and a sluggish economy.

Arpaio’s Use of Symbolic Politics and Political Spectacles

Arpaio’s tenure as Maricopa County Sheriff in Arizona demonstrates the use of state and federal legislation, along with the use of spectacle and symbolic politics to police brown bodies and create a haven for anti-immigrant vigilantes. Arpaio was elected Sheriff of Maricopa County in 1993 and served for 24 years. He finally lost re-election to Democrat Paul Penzone in the last election. Arpaio first made international news for his human rights violations by establishing a tent prison in the Arizona desert, banning coffee and cooked meals and reestablishing chain gangs.  As the anti-immigrant sentiment intensified in Arizona, Arpaio’s first move to gain center stage in the national immigration spectacle began by offering jail rooms to detain immigrants and obtaining funding to establish a country-wide immigration law enforcement program (Doty 2009).

Arpaio signed the controversial 287 (g) agreement2 between Maricopa County and Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE), which allowed him to cross train sheriff deputies in immigration enforcement.  ICE granted Maricopa County “the most robust 287 (g) contract in the country” (Shahani and Greene 2009:24).  In September 2006, the Law Enforcement Agency Response (LEAR) program began in Arizona and ICE agreed to provide “a more comprehensive response” when officers encountered suspected illegal aliens (ICE 2008).  The director of the Phoenix Office of Detention and Removal Operations (DRO) field office claimed that “One of ICE’s top enforcement priorities is to improve public safety in Arizona communities. . . By focusing our resources on programs that identify criminal aliens for removal from the United States, we are succeeding in our mission to keep foreign-born criminals off the streets in Arizona” (ICE 2008).

After the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) expanded his power to engage in random street raids under the 287 (g) program, Arpaio unleashed a series of raids on Latino communities throughout Maricopa County.  His rampant campaign of racial profiling was not hampered by local police chiefs’ and city council members’ disapproval of his activities or the indictments for civil rights abuses or law suits resulting from these actions.  While Arpaio’s history of human rights violations expanded during his five terms in office, his immigration law enforcement demonstrated the strongest link between creating a public spectacle and legitimating hate-groups and anti-immigration campaigns.

Arpaio’s most significant use of symbolic language was the constant reference to raids as “crime suppression sweeps,” which created the symbolic illusion of eradicating crime rather than racial profiling or committing civil and human rights violations.  The public was notified that all persons arrested were criminals and stopped for criminal behavior.  By targeting neighborhoods with a high concentration of Mexican and immigrant families, the link between crime and immigrants was reinforced in the public mind. Reports on the number of persons arrested in a “Crime Suppression Sweep” were immediately released to the press with little distinction made between the precise numbers of violent criminals arrested and immigrants detained for “being out of status” or undocumented.

Local immigration raids and sweeps were staged to demonstrate government action is being taken to protect its citizens and regain jobs and benefits. Drama was produced by using work places and Latino communities as political stages. Law enforcement officers arrive with menacing props and costumes and chase individuals perceived as immigrants based on their race, without regard to their personal safety or consequences to their families. Gradually, the spectacle included SWAT-team style immigration raids on homes, previously reserved for the War on Drugs. Raids have taken place across the country but civil and human rights violations under Sheriff Arpaio were particularly evident in Maricopa County in Arizona. Sheriff Arpaio choreographed his use of 287 (g) agreement by establishing areas for citizenship inspection stops and for raids and sweeps.

Source: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement


Given the lack of support from city council members and police chiefs in the country, he made concerted efforts to demonstrate the need and urgency for these police actions. Organizing the sequence of actions for country sheriffs, voluntary posse and participating ICE officials, Arpaio set the police action in motion, provided the media and news reporters with adequate access and staged press releases. He usually arrived with his fleet of Ford Econoline vans that were clearly marked in red lettering with the following: “HELP SHERIFF JOE ARPAIO FIGHT ILLEGAL IMMIGRATION & TRAFFICKING CALL 602.876.4145 WITH TIPS ON ILLEGAL ALIENS.” Arpaio manufactured a media circus by establishing a mobile command center. His excessive use of sheriff deputies and posse in each operation, coupled with extravagant and highly visible vehicles, created a war-like zone. Armed with long barrel shotguns and at times tear gas, Latino neighborhoods were raided in a manner that any observer could conclude the operations were targeting an imminent threat. The massive show of weapons and police presence instilled a sense of crisis. Arpaio’s highly visible operations enforced the notion that all immigrants were criminals and dangerous.

During the spring of 2009, Arpaio incorporated another controversial symbol into the raid ritual by issuing his deputies protective gear kits consisting of face masks and gloves to use when encountering and arresting Mexican immigrants. After making a news release of the need to protect deputies and jail staff from the risk of swine flu exposure, he provided the media with visual images of law enforcement agents using surgical masks and gloves, which clearly conveyed the message that Mexican immigrants posed a health threat to officers and citizens.

The fact that surgical masks do not combat the virus was unimportant since the only point of issuing protective gear kits was continuing the spectacle of the threat of immigration. The news release attributed the presence of tuberculosis and chicken pox in jails to detained immigrants. Using infectious diseases as one of the symbols to identify the threat that Mexican immigrants posed in the U.S. was a completely planned and staged event. The protective gear for dealing with “suspected illegal immigrants” marked all non-citizens, particularly Latinos, as a threat to public health.

The prop that led to one local newspaper to claim “Sheriff Arpaio’s Reign of Terror” was the black ski masks that members of Arpaio’s posse wore when accompanying Maricopa County sheriffs during raids in 2008. Sheriff Arpaio maintained a civilian posse for 16 years. They had official insignia, and many drove unmarked cars. He unleashed the posse for immigration raids. They chased down individuals they felt were undocumented and when they worked alone, they held suspected undocumented immigrants until officers arrived. Some members of the posse were also members of Nativist and anti-immigrant groups.

One of Arpaio’s most outrageous use of terror were a series of raids that targeted the town of Guadalupe, a town consisting of one square mile between Tempe and Phoenix, Arizona. Originally founded by Yaqui Indians
at the turn of the century, the town is now the home of both Yaqui and Mexican immigrant and Mexican American residents. Yaqui Indians have ancestral roots in Mexico. There are about 5,500 residents.

Unfortunately, as a small community, Guadalupe does not have its own police force and relies on the services of Maricopa County Sheriff’s Department. Arpaio conducted a two-day raid. The first day, he established his Command center at the Dollar Store. Residents who protested the raids were targeted for special surveillance.

This was also the day of celebration for the town because the church was holding confirmation for the children. On the second day, Arpaio moved his Command Center because the national office of the Dollar Store complained that he did not have permission to use their parking lot.

Residents were stopped by masked and armed men while driving or walking, others were chased as they ran to their homes for refuge. After two days of raiding the one-mile radius of Guadalupe with 200 deputies and members of Arpaio’s posse, only nine immigrants were arrested for not having adequate documentation to be in the U.S.

Source: Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement


This type of policing has terrorized low-income communities, particularly children and the elderly. Sheriff Arpaio’s raids profiled immigrants who were working poor and were of Mexican ancestry. Reasons used for stopping drivers included: walking with open containers, broken taillights, improper use of horn, children appeared to be bouncing up and down in backseat and not wearing seatbelts, expired tags. Former Phoenix Mayor Gordon criticized Arpaio’s policing as a sanctuary for felons because during this time there were 40,000 warrants that his office had not served, and the sweeps had little impact on arresting criminals or human smugglers. These policing priorities are reminders of the high price Mexican communities pay for the ideology of white injury.

Mainstream media and elected officials assisted in normalizing these immigration practices by engaging in the chronic use of anti-immigration terms, which functioned to induce uncritical responses and erased doubts of inhumanity. One way that resistance was silenced was by linking anti-immigration campaigns to “patriotism” and characterizing involvement in anti-immigration as patriotic acts.

The claim to patriotism by anti-immigrant and vigilante groups frequently included the display of numerous U.S. flags, highlighting leaders’ veteran records, and using recognized icons, such as Uncle Sam or Rosie the Riveter (Romero 2008). In identifying anti-immigrant politicians and law enforcement officers as standing up to the threat that immigration poses, people opposing and protesting these immigration law enforcement practices were then painted as enemies of the state.

Part of the choreographed event of setting up the spectacle was assigning police officers or sheriffs to monitor the protestors. This was done by creating a border with barricades and officers standing behind while facing the activists rather than Arpaio’s supporters. Even though activists obtained permits to protest, were well organized and never carried weapons, they became the focus of the police gaze. American Freedom Riders arrived on the motorcycles wearing leather clothing with red, white, and blue patches to the protests.

Signs and banners contributed additional symbols of patriotism. Banners and signs containing red, white and blue background or lettering carried messages of support for Arpaio. Nativist patriotism not only appropriated anti-immigration as the only patriotic stance on immigration but defined the criteria of citizenship as being a mono-lingual English speaker. American Freedom Riders frequently arrived at the protest events armed and freely physically intimidated human rights activists without police interference while riding their motorcycles.

The Southern Law Poverty, along with numerous civil rights organizations, tracked the increasing number of nativist extremist and hate groups targeting immigrants in Arizona. Many of these groups also have strong links to other anti-immigrant groups, such as Save Our State, Colorado Minutemen, and California Coalition for Immigration Reform. Almost all of these groups have members in Maricopa County and are active supporters of Arpaio.

The symbolism created by policing protestors marked the activists as potential law-breakers.  Keeping the activists under police surveillance contributed to condoning the actions of Arpaio’s armed supporters and created the appearance that activists were not law-abiding citizens.  The armed police officers monitoring the protesters further enhanced the image of immigrants as dangerous and activists as unpatriotic.

A strategy used by anti-immigration groups to appear patriotic and mainstream included volunteering and contributing to political campaigns and inviting potential candidates and politicians to speak at their rallies.  Joe Arpaio was a frequent invited speaker at their rallies.

White supremacist political party, American Third Position, announced donation to fund defense of AZ SB 1070.3 Their mission statement declared the group existed “to represent the political interests of white Americans.”

History of Lawsuits

Over his 24 years as sheriff, Arpaio was accused of numerous practices of police misconduct, mistreatment of prisoners, abuse of power, misuse of funds, failure to investigate sex crimes, unlawful enforcement of immigration laws, and election law violations. Over 2,700 lawsuits, concerning violations at the county’s prisons alone, were filed against Arpaio in Federal and County Courts, which is 50 times the number in New York City, Los Angeles, Chicago and Houston combined.  However, the lawsuit that finally ended his career was the class action lawsuit, Ortega Melendres vs. Arpaio, which charged Sheriff Arpaio and MCSO (Maricopa County Sheriff Office) of instituting a pattern of targeting Latino drivers and passengers.

In the case of plaintiff, Mr. Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres, his encounter with MCSO officers occurred as a passenger rather than a driver during the sweep on September 26, 2007. The white driver was told he was stopped for speeding but not given a citation. However, Mr. Ortega was asked for identification. After showing his U.S. visa, his Mexican Federal Voter Registration and a stamped permit valid until Nov. 2007, issued by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security, he was ordered to get out of the vehicle.

He was submitted to excessive force and unprofessional behavior as he was patted down and handcuffed. In his four-hour detention in jail, he was not read his Miranda rights, given the opportunity to make a phone call, told why he was being detained or provided a Spanish-language translator. Later he was taken to the local ICE office and his handcuffs were removed. After a total of nine hours, with no water or food, the ICE official reviewed Mr. Ortega’s identification documents and he was released without any paper trail other than a case number. At no time was Mr. Ortega read his Miranda rights, informed of charges or given any information about the reason for the arrest.

U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow found that Maricopa County sheriff’s deputies targeted Latinos during traffic stops with the presumption that they entered the country illegally and found their practices of the sheriffs discriminatory based on race that resulted in prolonged traffic stops and baseless extended detentions in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

During the trial, Arpaio was found to have condoned and participated in circulating racist commentary about Latinos and created “a general cultural of bias” in the sheriff’s office. In 2011, Judge Snow issued an order mandating changes in MCSO to eliminate misconduct and future violations of the community’s constitutional rights. Arpaio ignored the 2011 order to stop immigration enforcement when he lost the federal 287(g) agreement.

Arpaio also violated court orders to audio and video record of all traffic stops, increase training and monitoring employees, and maintain comprehensive records. Judge Snow found him in contempt of court and scheduled sentencing for October 2017.

Although, Arpaio was unlikely to do jail time, Trump pardoned him on August 25th. Following Trump’s pardon, attorneys filed motions to have the entire criminal case against him expunged from his record. U.S. District Judge Susan Bolton ruled the conviction stands because the pardon only affected possible punishments. Later in the fall, Arpaio announced he was running for the Republican nomination for the U.S. Senate being vacated by Republican Jeff Flack. Arpaio asked an appeals court to overturn the judge’s decision to uphold his criminal contempt conviction despite being pardoned by Trump. Immigrant and human rights activists who fought to remove him from the sheriff’s office in 2016 are regrouping to get Latino voter turnout with hopes of getting at least 350,000 Latinos – about one third of those eligible to vote in 2018.


Although I focused on Arpaio’s law enforcement practices and his use of spectacle and symbolic politics, we cannot lose sight of state and national government participation in alarmist immigration rhetoric and laws embracing “alien immigrant,” “criminal” and “terrorist” as the same category and lending legitimacy to a range of anti-immigration activities conducted by civilians.

Source: The Sociologist


As the state shifts immigration policy to counter terrorism, vigilante groups are provided a shield of patriotism to conceal their nativist and racist attacks against Latinos in the U.S.  Anti-immigrant vigilante groups continue to operate without much state interference and are sometimes encouraged or celebrated by public officials. Alarmist immigration rhetoric and laws continue to support draconian measures particularly targeting immigrants of color and non-citizens residing illegally in the U.S.


  1. Portions of this paper were previously published in “Are Your Papers in Order? Racial Profiling, Vigilantes and America’s Toughest Sheriff’,” Harvard Latino Law Review, 14: 337-357 (2011) and “Keeping Citizenship Rights White: Arizona’s Racial Profiling Practices in Immigration Law Enforcement,” Law Journal for Social Justice, 1 (1): 97-113 (2011). Portions of this paper were also presented at a talk at American University on January 25, 2018.
  2. The 287(g) program is one of the partnership initiatives of the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE). The program allows a state or local law enforcement entity to enter into a partnership with ICE, under a joint Memorandum of Agreement (MOA), to receive delegated authority for immigration enforcement within their jurisdictions.
  3. The Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act (referred to as Arizona SB 1070) was a legislative Act in the state of Arizona. When it was passed in 2010, it became the broadest and strictest immigration measure passed in Arizona.


Cacho, Lisa Marie. 2012. Social Death, Racialized Rightlessness and the Criminalization of the Unprotected. New York: New York University Press.

Chavez, Leo Ralph. 2001. Covering Immigration: Poplar Images and the Politics of the Nation. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Romero, Mary. 2008. The Latino Threat: Constructing Immigrants, Citizens and the Nation.  Stanford University Press.

Romero, Mary. 2008. Crossing the Immigration and Race Border: A Critical Race Theory Approach to Immigration Studies, 11 Contemporary Journal Review.

Doty, Roxanne Lynn.  2009. The Law into Their Own Hands: Immigration and the Politics of Exceptionalism. Tucson: University of Arizona Press.

Otto, Santa Ana. 2002. Brown tide Rising: Metaphors of Latinos in Contemporary American Public Discourse. Austin: University of Texas Press.

Shahani, Aarti and Judith Greene. 2009. Local Democracy on ICE: Why State and Local Governments have no Business in Federal Immigration Law Enforcement: A Justice Strategies Report available at http://www.justicestrategies.org/publications/2009/localdemocracyicewhystateandlocalgovernmentshavenobusinessfederalimmig

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. 2008. Fact Sheet: Operation Community Shield. hppt://www.ice.gov/diclib/news/library/factsheets/community-shield.htm.

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