Anybody following immigration issues has probably heard of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, better known as Sheriff Joe. Working in Maricopa County, Arizona, the Sheriff has rounded up thousands of undocumented immigrants (he's is keeping a tab on his website) for minor offenses like turn-signal violations or broken taillights. Meanwhile, Sheriff Joe ignores tens of thousands of criminal warrants so he can go after immigrant day laborers with his 3,000 person posse. Mayors (including the mayor of Phoenix) and public officials have complained, but the Sheriff says he has no intention of listening to, say, federal laws on the matter. As Joe himself says,
"Do you think I’m going to report to the federal government?" he said. "I don’t report to them. If they don’t like the contract, they can close it up. That’s all."
"By the way," he said, "we do have a 3,000-person posse — and about 500 have guns. They have their own airplanes, jeeps, motorcycles, everything. They can only operate under the sheriff. I swear ’em in. I can put up 30 airplanes tomorrow if I wanted."
But unfortunately for several cities across the nation, Sheriff Joe has inspired some followers. On Tuesday the Times reported that some cities are taking immigration matters into their own hands, rounding up undocumented immigrants for crimes as small as fishing without a license in Georgia. Even states have jumped into the fray, with a law in Oklahoma making "sheltering or transporting illegal immigrants" a felony (does anyone else think this has a pre-Civil War ring?) and a new law in Mississippi declaring it a felony for an undocumented immigrant to have a job.
Following Sheriff Joe's lead, local officials have really gotten into the round-'em-up game. Sheriff Wendell Hall of Santa Rosa County displays a framed cartoon that shows Daniel Boone admiring Hall's arrest of 27 undocumented workers. Bay County Sheriff Frank McKeithen is also using Sheriff Joe-like tactics, and doesn't even bother using the word "immigrant" on his website: "Do you know of any illegal alien activity or employers that hire illegal aliens?" he asks.
But the most interesting part of the article is not the macho, cowboys-and-Indians type attitudes of these crazy sheriffs -- unfortunately, mistreatment of immigrants is nothing new -- but rather the effect that these round-ups have had on the towns over which these officials preside. Hispanics -- even U.S. citizens -- live in fear of racial profiling and immigration raids, and hundreds -- including legal citizens -- have disappeared from towns with tough crackdown policies. Others have remained, but their daily routines are tinged with fear:
Many Hispanics said they avoided being seen or heard speaking Spanish in Wal-Mart, even if they live here legally. Others detailed their habit of meticulously checking their cars’ headlights, blinkers and registration to avoid being pulled over.
Local employers have found themselves short-staffed as well. Geronimo Barragan, the owner of a Mexican restaurant called La Hacienda, was forced to close his restaurant for two and a half months because he was unable to find workers (the Times has an excellent video).
Unable to find people in the area who can cook Mexican food, Mr. Barragan, 41, has been scouring the nation, recruiting in Houston, Chicago and Baton Rouge. He has yet to find all the workers he needs, relying on a handful of new hires with work visas that expire in November. He said he wished that Congress could find a way to bring more foreign workers to America legally.
Clearly, the current immigration system is broken. Technically, officials like Sheriff Hall aren't allowed to enforce immigration laws since they aren't 287(g) certified, so they have to go about it in a roundabout way, by arresting people who are using others' social security numbers, many of whom are initially identified through racial profiling.
A good solution is a policy that is consistent throughout the nation and takes into account not only humane treatment of immigrants, but acknowledges the significant contribution that these immigrants make to their communities as well. The government needs to reign in these renegade sheriffs, to protect not only immigrants but the cities where they work and live.