PHOENIX — An Arizona sheriff known nationally for his hard-line stance on illegal immigration took the witness stand Tuesday and faced allegations that his trademark immigration sweeps amount to racial profiling against Hispanics.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, testifying in defense at a civil trial, was questioned about statements that critics say show prejudiced thinking.
Plaintiffs’ lawyers asked Arpaio about a statement in which he called illegal immigrants “dirty” and another that seemed to express admiration for the Ku Klux Klan.
Arpaio said the statement about immigrants was taken out of context, adding that if a person were to cross the U.S.-Mexico border on foot over four days in the desert that person “could be dirty. That’s the context on how I used that word.”
He also was asked about a 2007 appearance on a national cable television news show. CNN host Lou Dobbs spoke with Arpaio at the time about comparisons between his department and the KKK, about which the sheriff said, “I think it’s an honor. It means we are doing something.”
Arpaio on Tuesday said he said he doesn’t consider the comparison an honor, adding that he has no use for the KKK.
Arpaio also made headlines recently when he said his investigators had proven President Barack Obama’s birth certificate was a fake. But on Tuesday, Arpaio wasn’t projecting his usual bluster. He said he has the flu and was speaking in a hushed tone, clearing his throat often.
Plaintiffs say Arpaio’s office disproportionately singled out Latinos in the immigration patrols and accuse him of launching some sweeps based on emails and letters that don’t allege crimes, but complain only that “dark-skinned people” are congregating in a given area or speaking Spanish.
A group of Latinos who say they have been discriminated against filed the civil lawsuit against the lawman who makes jail inmates sleep in tents and wrote an autobiography titled “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
Arpaio has long denied racial profiling allegations and said Tuesday, “We don’t arrest people because of the color of their skin.”
During the sweeps that are at the center of the case, sheriff’s deputies flood an area of a city — in some cases, heavily Latino areas — over several days to seek out traffic violators and arrest other offenders.
Illegal immigrants accounted for 57 percent of the 1,500 people arrested in the 20 sweeps conducted by Arpaio’s office since January 2008, according to figures provided by the sheriff’s department, which hasn’t conducted any such patrols since October.
The plaintiffs aren’t seeking money in the suit. They are seeking a declaration that Arpaio’s office racially profiles Latinos and an order requiring policy changes.
If Arpaio loses the case, he won’t face jail time or fines.
The trial began last week and is expected to close next week. It will be decided by U.S. District Judge Murray Snow.
The judge hasn’t ruled on the ultimate question of racial profiling, but said in a December ruling that a fact finder could interpret some of Arpaio’s public statements as endorsements of racial profiling.
The lawsuit marks the first case in which the sheriff’s office has been accused of systematic racial profiling and will serve as a precursor for a similar yet broader civil rights lawsuit filed against Arpaio in May by the U.S. Department of Justice.
The plaintiffs say deputies conducting Arpaio’s sweeps pulled over Hispanics without probable cause, making the stops only to inquire about the immigration status of the people in the vehicles.
The sheriff maintains that people are stopped only if authorities have probable cause to believe they have committed crimes and that deputies later find many of the people stopped are illegal immigrants.
Plaintiff’s lawyers say Arpaio endorsed calls for racial profiling with the sweeps by passing along the ambiguous and racially charged complaint letters to aides who planned his immigration enforcement efforts and carried out at least three patrols after receiving the letters.
They also point out that Arpaio wrote thank-you notes to some who sent complaints.
Arpaio’s attorneys denied that the letters and emails prompted the sheriff to launch the patrols with a discriminatory motive. His lawyers called the complaints racially insensitive and said aides to the sheriff — not Arpaio himself — decided where to conduct the patrols. They also said there was nothing wrong with the thank-you notes.
“He sends thank-you letters because he is an elected official,” Tim Casey, the lawyer leading Arpaio’s defense, said during opening arguments.
In an August 2008 letter, a woman wrote about a Sun City restaurant: “From the staff at the register to the staff back in the kitchen area, all I heard was Spanish — except when they haltingly spoke to a customer.” The letter ended with a suggestion that the sheriff investigate.
Arpaio made a handwritten note in the margins saying, “letter thank you for info will look into it” and that the complaint should be sent to aide Brian Sands, who selects locations for sweeps, with a notation saying “for our operation.” The sheriff’s office launched a sweep two weeks later in Sun City.
Earlier in 2008, the sheriff received a letter from a man who complained that police in nearby Mesa hadn’t approached day laborers to find out whether they were in the country legally. Plaintiff’s lawyers say Arpaio made a notation in the margins about a thank-you note and marked it to draw Sands’ attention.
Plaintiff’s lawyers said Arpaio got another 2008 letter urging a sweep in Mesa and noting that the leader of the city’s police union was Hispanic.
The lawyers said the sheriff wrote “I will be going into Mesa” and sent a copy of the complaint to Sands. Shortly thereafter, the sheriff’s office launched a sweep in Mesa and noted in a news release that the sheriff was sending deputies to Mesa “in keeping with his promise to the public,” the lawyers said.