Arizona Sheriff Combats Illegal Immigration

August 21, 2006 at 12:00 AM EDT
Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio talks about how imprisoning illegal immigrants serves as a deterrent in this fifth conversation on the topic of immigration in the United States.

GWEN IFILL: Finally, the fifth in our series of immigration insights. For that, we go to Maricopa County, Arizona, which includes the city of Phoenix and has become a major transit point for thousands of illegal aliens who cross the border from Mexico every year.

The sheriff of Maricopa County is Joe Arpaio. He’s developed something of a reputation for his get-tough approach to illegal immigration. I spoke with him recently from Tempe.

GWEN IFILL: Welcome, Sheriff Arpaio.

JOE ARPAIO, Sheriff, Maricopa County, Arizona: My pleasure.

GWEN IFILL: In Washington, as you know, the debate over immigration comes down to the choice between border security and what some people describe as opportunity for the people who are trying to get to the United States for better lives. How do you see it?

JOE ARPAIO: Well, first of all, I lived in Mexico. I was head of the federal drug enforcement for four years. I’m one politician that knows where Mexico is, having lived there. I do have compassion for the Mexican people; on the other hand, I will enforce the law.

I’m an elected sheriff. There’s a new law that was passed in Arizona. I am the only one in enforcing that new law, which is very strange, that when the coyote or the smuggler comes into this country with people that are being smuggled in, those smugglees can also be charged, according to a decision by the county attorney. So we have locked up 258 already under this new law.

I will continue to do it. You should enforce the law. There is a federal law that very seldom is put into effect. You can get six months in jail just for being an illegal in this country.

GWEN IFILL: Who should be paying for this, if indeed the local law enforcement has decided, you have decided to take it into your hands to enforce this law and to stop immigration in its tracks? Who’s paying for it? Is it a federal taxpayer paying for it or is it the local taxpayer?

JOE ARPAIO: No, it’s a state law that we’re paying. I run the jails. I have 2,000 in the tents, in the hot tents. I’m not concerned about overcrowding. We do have 10,000 prisoners. A thousand of them are illegals, but I’m not concerned.

That’s not a copout for me. It’s a copout for everybody else, including the federal government, all this saying, “We don’t have any room for them.” But they can put tents up at the border if they want. They can always make room for those that are caught.

Now, I’m talking about enforcing the law. Right now you have the National Guard, you have increased Border Patrol. I am saying, from now on, anybody that crosses that border should be charged under the federal law, and this will stop them from coming over.

GWEN IFILL: So describe this project you have — a lot of people are familiar with it — in which you have built tents in the desert essentially in order to house this influx of immigrants who have been arrested. Does the punishment fit the crime?

JOE ARPAIO: First of all, I put the tents up after I took office 14 years ago. I just happen to be increasing the space in the tents in case I need the tents. Since I’m the only one enforcing the law here in Arizona, not many people are locking up these illegals, where I would have to incarcerate them. I’m the only one doing it, so we’ve incarcerated about 300. I can put 3,000 in if I have to.

GWEN IFILL: Can I ask you about impact? Has crime gone down? Has employment increased? What has happened that you can point to that is the net good result of your having enforced the law, as you put it?

JOE ARPAIO: Well, not enough time to tell. This law we’ve been enforcing in the last four months. I’ll tell you one thing: It’s stopping the illegals from coming through Maricopa County. They know they’re going to jail and not the free ride back in an air-conditioned bus back to Mexico.

So we’re having difficulty finding these people. I have a volunteer posse out their along with my deputies. We’re proactive, and we’re going to continue to arrest illegals and the smugglers that come into this county.

See, I have illegals in jail, and they can’t cut palm trees or work in jail and send money back to their loved ones. So it’s an economic problem. If you start putting them in jail, then they won’t come over because they can’t make any money in jail to send back to their families.

GWEN IFILL: One of the things that officials in Los Angeles, for instance, have said is that they feel — police officials have said that they feel they may be losing informants, people who can help them, undocumented workers who could help them solve crimes by intimidating them into not coming forward because of enforcement of laws like this. What do you say to that?

JOE ARPAIO: I don’t believe that. That’s just another copout for not doing the job. I’ve had two cases recently where illegals brought the information to us, so they didn’t seem to be concerned about giving information on crimes.

GWEN IFILL: What kind of public feedback do you get? You talk about people protesting or picketing in front of your office. But I wonder in general how people in Maricopa County, in Phoenix, are reacting to kind of your get-tough policies?

JOE ARPAIO: First of all, I’m elected. I’m not running for office until two years from now. I don’t need this issue to get any votes.

But to answer your question, since I’ve been on about 100 national shows, I’ve received thousands, and thousands, and thousands of letters, e-mails, flowers, you name it. Everybody wants me to run for president, run for governor, all favorable to my action. That tells you there’s a silent majority out there that wants something done about this illegal problem.

Now, I have a gun and badge. I don’t just talk about it. In Congress they talk. I have a gun and badge, and I’m doing something about it by locking them up. So I think people are concerned about all the talk, committee hearings. Nothing’s being done. This is one sheriff that is getting the job done by locking them up and putting them in jail.

GWEN IFILL: Do you think that what you’re doing is universally applicable, something that other jurisdictions and even the federal government could adopt?

JOE ARPAIO: I think I know something about the border, which is interesting. No politician has come to me for my advice, but that doesn’t bother me.

But I’m convinced if you start arresting these people as they come across the border, since you had the National Guard and everybody down there spending billions of dollars, if you arrest them, I’m convinced it will deter people from crossing the border.

Now, I’m not saying going after the other 11 million working in hotels and all across the nation, that’s a different issue. Starting now, put them in jail and you will see that the deterrence will be there.

You can put all the walls up, all the National Guard. They’re still going to come in, if there is no penalty for coming in, except for a free ride back to Mexico. You put them in jail, I guarantee you they will not come across the border because you cannot make money while you’re in jail to send back to your families.

GWEN IFILL: Sheriff Joe Arpaio of Maricopa County, Arizona, thank you very much.

JOE ARPAIO: Thank you.

Enforcing state law

Facing jail time

A 'silent majority'