He liked to come when they were least expecting him, busting into restaurants, factories, and other workplaces that may employ undocumented Latino immigrants, demanding their identification. If they couldn’t produce any, Maricopa County’s Sheriff Joe Arpaio whisked them away to his pride and joy, his “Tent City" – a vast, open-air jail consisting of tents in which he held alleged illegal immigrants as they awaited trial.
Maricopa County is Arizona’s largest and includes Phoenix, a bustling college city in a state that often serves as Mexican immigrants’ gateway into the U.S. Arpaio was elected sheriff in 1993 and promised to crack down on the growing population of undocumented immigrants. He set up his jail, which came to be called by many “Tent City" and by him “a concentration camp."
Two years into his term, he reinstated the prison “chain gang," including the first-ever female chain gang as well as one for juveniles. Prisoners worked seven hours a day, six days a week, even as temperatures climbed upwards of 120 degrees – though the youth chain gang was all-volunteer based and workers received high school credit for participating.
Arpaio proudly did what he could to dehumanize the inmates, whom he called “criminals" despite their still awaiting trial, depriving them of adequate food, cold water, and shelter, leaving them exposed to the Arizona elements – up to 120-degree heat in the desert summer and as low as 35 below zero in the winter. Arpaio measured the heat inside of the tents in summer 2011 and found it to have climbed to 145 degrees one day. Inmates’ shoes melted from the heat as they suffered heatstroke, fainted, and sometimes died from thirst and heat exposure. During the winters, conversely, Arpaio did not allow jackets. Prisoners resorted to filling water bottles with hot shower water and holding them close to their bodies as they tried to sleep.
In 1997, Amnesty International called out Arpaio's tent city jail on the grounds that it was not found to be an "adequate or humane alternative to housing inmates in suitable ... jail facilities." In 2010, Arpaio showed no signs of remorse and famously became a proponent of Arizona’s Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act, the strictest anti-illegal immigration legislation passed in Arizona. The act required that state law enforcement attempt to determine an individual’s immigration status using a “lawful stop, detention, or arrest" policy if they had reasonable suspicion that someone was residing in the state without documents. It also punished those found to be sheltering, hiring, or transporting undocumented immigrants and barred officials from restricting enforcement of immigration laws.
Critics claim that the legislation enables racial profiling, something that Arpaio himself was convicted of by the U.S. Department of Justice in 2011. They concluded that he had overseen the worst systemic racial profiling in U.S. history, calling it "a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos" and sued him for discriminatory police conduct. A U.S. judge ordered that he stop racially profiling Latino drivers, to which Arpaio and his office refused to comply.
Ultimately, Arpaio’s department was sued almost 2200 times for allegations of repeatedly defying of court orders, refusing to investigate allegations of rapes occurring under his watch, overseeing wrongful deaths, wrongfully arresting Latino individuals, instating immigration patrols, managing sweeps of Latino communities, and infringing upon the human rights of those he imprisoned.
“Sheriff Joe," who had dubbed himself “the toughest sherrif in America," was re-elected five times in spite of the controversy, losing his first election in November 2016 on the same day that Donald Trump – the candidate he supported – won the presidential election. (The new sheriff, Paul Penzone, promised to shut down Tent City.)
This week, President Trump demonstrated that he had not forgotten Arpaio’s public endorsement of him during his candidacy. U.S. District Judge G. Murray Snow sued Joe Arpaio in 2014 for repeated contempt of court, for which he was found guilty on July 31, 2017. His sentencing was scheduling for October 2017, but on August 25, President Trump granted him a presidential pardon, declaring him “an American patriot" who “kept Arizona safe." He said that Arpaio served Arizona for fifty years “protecting the public from the scourges of crime and illegal immigration."
His pardon sparked intense controversy and backlash from both sides, as many find it to be a condoning of racism. This pardon stands in stark contrast to a similar controversy from the last presidential administration; President Barack Obama commuted the sentence of leaker Chelsea Manning in 2016. Commutation is a different form of clemency than a pardon. While a pardon forgives and generally condones an action, commutation still condemns it but acknowledges that the perpetrator was only doing what they thought to be the best for the greater good.
In pardoning Arpaio, Donald Trump stands by his criminal actions and regressive ideologies – something unusual, non-presidential, and ultimately damning, as his ratings sink ever lower and officials consider whether the pardon is grounds for impeachment.