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Arizona's Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio speaks at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland
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Trump’s Phoenix caper: Snake oil on the fire

Vanda Felbab-Brown

President Trump’s planned rally in Phoenix tomorrow threatens to inflame ethnic and racial tensions in the country and further encourage racist and extremist far-right groups. This will be particularly so if President Trump, despite the opposition of Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton,[1]  pardons the former elected sheriff of Maricopa County, in which Phoenix lies. It also further complicates NAFTA negotiations that just formally began.

Arizona was the site of some of Trump’s most incendiary campaign statements. In Tucson in March 2016 he implicitly started comparing immigrants to and asylum seekers in the United States to snakes by citing a poem about a treacherous snake[2] and suggesting extreme attitudes and harsh policies toward them. While refraining from those comparisons during his Phoenix rallies that helped propel him to the nomination, his rhetoric continued to be inflammatory and divisive. And now, coming from the mouth of the President, any praise for former Sheriff Arpaio, let alone a pardon, will be incendiary and weaken rule of law. It will also undermine efforts of Maricopa’s new sheriff Paul Penzone to heal relations between local communities and the police department in the county.[3]

Sheriff Arpaio promoted extreme anti-immigrant policing strategies, including shameful forced parades of apprehended undocumented workers in degrading clothing, and selective law enforcement obviously based on racial profiling of Latinos.[4] Becoming the lightning rod of immigration policy battles, Arpaio disregarded restraining instructions from the Department of Justice,  boasting in response that under his leadership, the Maricopa County  police department “arrested 500 more [Latinos] just for spite.”[5] At the end of July 2017, Arpaio was convicted of violating a judge’s order barring him from racially profiling Latinos, and now faces up to six months in prison.[6]

The Anti-Immigrant Agenda

Even prior to the possible pardon for Arpaio, the Trump administration revived the highly controversial 287(g) program under which local law enforcement officials can be deputized to perform immigration duties and can inquire about a person’s immigration status during routine policing, such as if one is caught jaywalking. That program coincided with Arizona’s Senate Bill 1070 of 2010, the country’s most severe anti-immigrant legislation criminalizing unauthorized immigration. The Arizona bill required immigrants to carry a proof of legal status, and punished those providing assistance to unauthorized immigrants.[7] Like the Arizona bill, the federal 287(g) program generated intense controversy, accusations of racial profiling, and lawsuits in Arizona’s Maricopa County, as  287(g) was invoked to justify major anti-immigration raids into immigrant neighborhoods. The program stigmatized immigrants of Hispanic origin – legal, second-generation, as well as undocumented workers. As a result, the Obama administration terminated the program in 2012. Moreover, as I detail in my Brookings Essay “The Wall,” such immigration policies undermine effective policing without helping the U.S. economy.

Vigils or Vigilantes?

Additionally—and ominously—the atmosphere of intrusive and heavy-handed policing of immigration embraced by the Trump administration risks reviving the anti-immigrant militias that emerged along the U.S.-Mexico border in the early and mid-2000s because of anti-immigration laws such as Arizona’s SB 1070. Groups such as the Minutemen and their various spinoffs took it upon themselves to patrol the border and either provide information to Border Patrol agents or even to detain crossers themselves, often acting in ways at the edge of illegality and in some cases explicitly violating the law.[8] Some of the groups also sought to intimidate all migrants, whether or not there was any basis to believe that they were in the United States illegally, such as by photographing people at day labor centers or inside hospital emergency rooms.[9] Although for years, law enforcement authorities, such as in Arizona, allowed such militias to conduct their questionable patrols, many of the groups ultimately were unable to resist the temptation to engage in blatantly unlawful acts and self-destructed, with some members charged with murders and other groups splintering.[10] Despite their denials, some also intersected with and appealed to white supremacist groups, such as Aryan Nations. A revival of such groups would compromise human rights, civil liberties, and the rule of law in the United States under any circumstances; with the rise of white supremacy groups, it would be particularly dangerous.

A Poisoned Shaft to NAFTA

Finally, any statements praising Arpaio or embracing harsh anti-immigration policies in Phoenix will also complicate the NAFTA renegotiation effort that formally started on August 17. Like Trump’s repeated demand that Mexico pays for the border wall he wants to construct, the anti-immigration rhetoric poisons the political atmosphere in Mexico; and in their offensiveness, can undermine a problem-solving attitude on the part of Mexican negotiators. They thus constrict the political space Mexican negotiators have to concede on matters that the Trump administration wants from the renegotiations, such as rules of origin of goods and parts traded within NAFTA.[11]

Rather than trying to mobilize his base, President Trump should use his planned Phoenix address to calm the nation after the violence in Charlottesville. Instead of once again stigmatizing immigrants, he should unequivocally condemn racism and ethnic bigotry and all forms of violence. Instead of pardoning or praising Arpaio or encouraging policy brutality as he did on Long Island on July 28,[12] he must resolutely endorse the rule of law and everyone’s respect for human rights.


[1] http://www.cnn.com/2017/08/16/politics/arizona-rally-donald-trump/index.htmlhttp://www.cnn.com/2017/08/16/politics/arizona-rally-donald-trump/index.html

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GMSJhNmBA7k

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2017/05/23/us/joe-arpaio-arizona.html?mcubz=1

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2012/jun/27/joe-arpaio-maricopa-county-king-cruel

[5] http://www.phoenixnewtimes.com/news/sheriff-joe-arpaio-admits-he-busted-mexicans-to-spite-critics-in-2009-recording-evidence-shows-he-also-did-it-for-publicity-not-legit-enforcement-6653221

[6] http://www.cnn.com/2017/07/31/us/arpaio-found-guilty/index.html

[7] http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/24/us/politics/24immig.html

[8] https://litigation-essentials.lexisnexis.com/webcd/app?action=DocumentDisplay&crawlid=1&doctype=cite&docid=60+Rutgers+L.+Rev.+797&srctype=smi&srcid=3B15&key=cbec7e3989ae0ed0aa4d28744a67b2a6

[9] http://www.dallasobserver.com/news/the-hunted-6377422

[10] http://www.motherjones.com/politics/2014/08/minuteman-movement-border-crisis-simcox

[11] http://www.reuters.com/article/us-trade-nafta-autos-idUSKCN1AX2R9

[12] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/post-nation/wp/2017/07/28/trump-tells-police-not-to-worry-about-injuring-suspects-during-arrests/?utm_term=.01248e4e5dfd

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