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How activists fought Joe Arpaio’s immigration roundups

Latino-led opposition brought down the Maricopa County sheriff.

Community members who oppose Joe Arpaio protest outside of the federal courthouse in downtown Phoenix on Oct. 11, 2016, the day federal prosecutors announced they would pursue criminal contempt of court charges against Arpaio for violating federal court orders in an ongoing racial profiling lawsuit. | Jude Joffe-Block

Over the course of a decade, from 2006 to 2016, a Latino-led movement in Arizona’s Maricopa County fought Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his local immigration crackdowns. American citizens of Latino descent, who felt targeted by Arpaio’s immigrant roundups, joined a movement to gather evidence against the sheriff in a landmark racial profiling lawsuit. Federal courts later found that the sheriff’s tactics were unconstitutional. The Latino-led resistance contributed to Arpaio’s electoral loss after 24 years in office. It also helped transform Arizona into a battleground state in the 2020 election.

This excerpt from the new book, Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio Versus the Latino Resistance, by Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block (University of California Press), describes Arpaio’s “shock-and-awe” sweeps, during which deputies arrested undocumented immigrant drivers and passengers and provoked terror in the immigrant community.

Driving While Brown: Sheriff Joe Arpaio versus the Latino Resistance
Written by Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block
432 pages, hardcover: $27.95
University of California Press, 2021.

On the Saturday before Easter in 2008, activist Lydia Guzman watched then-Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s deputies handcuff a Mexican immigrant who’d been pulled over for driving with a cracked windshield. As the man was led away after being arrested on a warrant for an earlier traffic violation, his 13-year-old son stood on the pavement alone, clutching a bag containing brightly colored plastic Easter eggs.

The boy caught Guzman’s eye. She felt as if he were asking her, silently, “Are you going to help me get my dad back?” Guzman later learned from the boy’s mother that deputies had placed the boy in a patrol car, questioned him about his father’s immigration status, and had driven him home. His father was eventually turned over to ICE for deportation.

“That was the first time that I actually saw what it did, psychologically, to children and the traumatization that it did to kids,” she said. Guzman, age 40, had thrown herself into an effort to stop Arpaio, and she would recognize that same look again and again as she tried to help children ensnared in the sheriff’s uncompromising immigration enforcement.

Activist Lydia Guzman poses in front of a billboard that reads, “Have your papers ready — Racial profiling just ahead,” in Phoenix on August 9, 2010. | Courtesy Lydia Guzman

The boy’s father had been arrested in a shock-and-awe immigration-themed sweep that Arpaio had just launched. The day before, on Good Friday, the sheriff had dispatched an army of uniformed deputies and posse members, some dressed in the agency’s regulation black “raid shirts,” to stop cars for minor traffic violations, like cracked windshields, broken tail lights or failing to signal. If immigrant drivers or passengers had no valid identification, Arpaio’s deputies could arrest them on suspicion of being undocumented. Those without documents eventually wound up in ICE custody. The deputies had this power because the previous year, Arpaio had entered into a partnership with ICE known as a 287(g) agreement.

Arpaio called these enforcement actions “saturation patrols” or “crime suppression operations.” His critics called them “community raids.”

Arpaio’s staff had erected a makeshift mobile command center in the parking lot of a run-down, partially vacant strip mall dotted with palm trees in Central Phoenix. Sheriff’s vehicles cluttered the asphalt — patrol SUVs, buses, vans and a portable trailer — most of them emblazoned with Arpaio’s name. After sunset, portable lights illuminated the command center like a stage. Deputies marched handcuffed men and women to the trailer for processing.

The sheriff had alerted the media a day in advance to ensure optimal coverage.

As TV cameras rolled, handcuffed men and women were loaded into vans advertising Arpaio’s illegal immigration hotline number and adorned with the words “Do Not Enter Illegally.” The vans transported immigrants to either the Fourth Avenue jail or straight to ICE headquarters.

Activist Alfredo Gutierrez shouts into a bullhorn in 2008 to warn arrestees to stay silent and ask for a lawyer during one of Joe Arpaio’s sweeps. | Film still from the documentary “Two Americans,” directed by Daniel DeVivo and Valeria Fernández

The sheriff greeted supporters who turned out for the spectacle — bikers in leather vests, T-shirted men with bandannas wrapped around their foreheads, people waving American flags.

Members of the Latino resistance would remember those two days in mid-March 2008 as the “Good Friday” raids, marking an uptick in the sheriff’s abuse of his federal immigration authority to gain political advantage and ingratiate himself with his followers. Immigrants and their American-citizen relatives paid the price, while activists scrambled to help them and witnessed their terror.

A couple months before the sweep, Guzman had been hired by a local businessman who opposed Arpaio’s tactics to help a team of attorneys gather evidence for a racial profiling lawsuit against Arpaio. This was known as the Melendres case. The suit alleged that Arpaio’s immigration enforcement tactics resulted in unconstitutional detentions and discrimination against Latino drivers and passengers in Maricopa County.

Now Guzman urged fellow immigrant rights advocates, in an email, to help document Arpaio’s racial profiling. “We have all you need, cameras, log sheets, water,” she wrote. “But we need bodies — this is a great way for you to invite a friend and be a part of protecting justice and civil rights.”

Filming deputies required courage. Volunteers had to assert their First Amendment rights while risking arrest. Dennis Gilman, a white self-described “hell-raiser” who had recently come to activism by leaving water on desert trails for thirsty migrants, followed deputies tenaciously with a new video camera. He created an archive on YouTube.

Read the full excerpt: https://www.hcn.org/articles/books-how-activists-fought-joe-arpaios-immigration-roundups

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