Apartheid for the undocumented in Arizona

February 11, 2009

Brian Tierney reports on the latest outrage committed by racist Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

AS BARACK Obama was ordering the closure of the U.S. prison camp at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, the sheriff of Arizona's largest county was busy opening a new Guantánamo inside the U.S.

Joe Arpaio, the notoriously anti-immigrant sheriff of Maricopa County, the fourth-largest in the country, ordered undocumented prisoners from the county jail separated--and relegated to an outdoor "Tent City" prison camp.

Arpaio, who once paraded shackled inmates in pink underwear for the purpose of publicly humiliating them, forced 220 undocumented prisoners to march to his modern-day prison camp of canvas tents in the middle of the Arizona desert--under the watch of armed guards and a cordon of televisions cameras.

The media were drawn to the event by Arpaio's announcement that prisoners would be put on display. Images of the forced march of inmates linked together in chains and wearing black and white striped prison suits were reminiscent of chain gangs in the pre-civil-rights-era South.

The detention camp is enclosed by a high-voltage electric fence, which Arpaio boasted in a press release would give "quite a shock--literally" to anyone who tries to escape.

Maricopa County Sherriff Joe Arpaio
Maricopa County Sherriff Joe Arpaio

Arpaio justified his latest stunt in a press release that said the tent city is "a financially responsible alternative to taxpayers already overburdened by the economic drain imposed by a growing number of illegal aliens on social services like education and health care." Of course, Arpaio, as always, ignored the fact that undocumented immigrants pay disproportionately more into the government, because they are barred from receiving many tax-funded services like Social Security.

This outrage comes in the wake of the disturbing announcement a week earlier by Obama's newly appointed Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano that she intended to intensify the crackdown on "criminal aliens" in the U.S.

While Arpaio's actions might seem like the ego-maniacal impulses of a bigot, his heavy-handed approach isn't isolated, as an editorial in the New York Times pointed out:

Though he frequently and proudly insists that he answers to no one, except at election time, the sheriff is not an isolated rogue. As a participant in the federal policing program called 287(g), he is an official partner of the United States government in its warped crackdown on illegal immigration.

If expanded, the 287(g) program, which consists of agreements for collaboration between local police and federal immigration agents, threatens to invite local authorities throughout the U.S. to follow the example of Arpaio's inhumane practices, according to a statement from the National Day Laborer Organizing Network (NDLON).

Sarahi Uribe, an organizer with NDLON, said that Napolitano's call for an expansion of 287(g) agreements would be a step backward. "Sheriff Arpaio's 287(g) program is one of the largest in the country," Uribe said. "It is through this program that he abuses his authority and carries out human rights violations."

As the Times editorial concluded, "Sheriff Arpaio is a powerful argument for doing just the opposite"--that is, not expanding the 287(g) program.

FORTUNATELY, ARPAIO'S apartheid plan for the undocumented has drawn a public outcry from other public officials, immigrant rights groups and parts of the mainstream media.

Alessandra Soler Meetze, executive director of the ACLU in Arizona, described the sheriff's actions as "motivated by the opportunity of self-aggrandizement and the promotion of his anti-immigrant agenda." Meetze wrote in her blog that Arpaio's tent city is another attempt to "pander to the most reactionary and racist elements of the anti-immigrant movement."

Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon requested that the FBI investigate and halt Arpaio's abuses of human and civil rights in Maricopa County. The community organizing group ACORN, in an article that appeared on the Huffington Post Web site, is calling on House Judiciary Committee Chair John Conyers to investigate Arpaio's repugnant practices.

Plus, a local group called Maricopa Citizens for Safety and Accountability recently held a "Death of Democracy" funeral procession to protest the sheriff's office for its harsh and unnecessary conduct.

NDLON, which rightly calls Arpaio the "Lou Dobbs of law enforcement," is organizing actions this month in four different cities--Los Angeles, San Francisco, New York and Washington, D.C.--to protest human and civil rights abuses against immigrant communities in Arizona. It is calling on local activists to hold teach-ins in their communities to discuss the human rights crisis in the state.

"The teach-ins will demonstrate that what is going on in Arizona is a threat to everyone's rights," said Uribe.

NDLON will also be convening a gathering of activists and organizers in Arizona at the end of the month to strategize on ways to put a stop to anti-immigrant abuses in the state and nationally.

The actions in Maricopa County last week are only the latest in a continuing racist war against immigrants and their families. But the vileness of Arpaio's policy of inmate segregation in an open-air prison demands a strong response from immigrant rights activists.

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