Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and Border Angels founder Enrique Morones, two outspoken men on the frontlines of America’s often caustic immigration debate, sat down in Arpaio’s downtown Phoenix office for a lively discussion of the divisive issue.
Morones is a human rights leader who has worked tirelessly to show America that Mexican immigrants are mostly hard-working and honorable people who suffer greatly due to American immigration policy. Arpaio is a former soldier and Drug Enforcement Agency officer who is known across America as a no-nonsense sheriff. He makes prisoners wear stripes and pink underwear, and work on chain gangs in the sweltering desert.
Morones has accused Arpaio of illegally enforcing federal immigration law and mistreating undocumented workers who are not criminals.
Morones started the discussion by asking Arpaio what changes he would like to see in federal immigration policy. Arpaio said he would like to see the laws already enacted properly enforced.
“If you don’t like the law, change the law,” he said. “Maybe more visas. Listen, my mother and father came here from Italy. People here from Mexico, South America and all over the world made this country great.”
Arpaio said it was unfair to grant citizenship to Mexican and Latin American immigrants who cross the border illegally while others wait for years to come into the country legally.
Morones said unlike his parents and Arpaio’s, most of today’s immigrants had no legal means to come into the country.
“I could trace my roots on this side of the border to 8,000 years back on my dad’s side,” Morones said. “It’s easy for people to say, well they should get in line and do it the right way. We all agree on that. Let’s create a right way. There is no right way for them.”
He said the United States is largely responsible for the influx of Mexican immigrants due to NAFTA and trade policies damaging to Latin American farmers. Since the implementation of Operation Gatekeeper in 1994, illegal immigrations have increased, he said, as economic turmoil south of the border drove desperate people north. Morones said more than 10,000 migrants have died crossing the border in the past 18 years.
Morones questioned Arpaio about being under investigation by the U.S. Judiciary Department for racial profiling and misappropriation of funds. Arpaio bristled at the question and said it as not relevant to a discussion of immigration reform. Morones said it was relevant because Arpaio was zealously corralling undocumented immigrants while under investigation by the federal government.
“Really? Let me tell you something,” barked Arpaio. “I’m enforcing the law. Now you’ve got my blood, up a little, which is common with you. I was saying nice things about you, okay? You can have your Department of Justice that’s been here two years investigating me and my office on alleged racial profiling. Has that stopped me?”
Arpaio said he respected Morones and was willing to communicate with him, but resorting to accusations and mud slinging was unnecessary.
“I’m not accusing you of anything,” said Morones. “Let those other things run their course. I’m not a lawyer. There are other people that are handling that.”
Morones asked if there was an incident during Arpaio’s tenure as an American agent in Mexico that may have compelled him to adopt his stance on immigrants.
“No! I got along great with President Echeverria,” said Arpaio. “He used to come to my house, quite frequently. I fed him blueberry pie and whiskey. I got more done with blueberry pie and whiskey than the big American stick!”
Arpaio said he felt the inmates in his jails were treated humanely and hoped that Morones would look into Maricopa County’s GED and drug prevention programs.
“You’re gonna say, you know what? This sheriff isn’t as bad as people say. Which I hope you don’t say, because you’ll be ruining my reputation,” joked Arpaio. “Don’t ever call me nice. I hope the inmates don’t say to you, I love the sheriff. You know I wouldn’t like that.”
Arpaio said he was in favor of having the U.S. military enter Mexico and work bilaterally with the Mexican government to resolve the drug cartel crime epidemic in the country. Morones said he definitely did not think the U.S. military should go into Mexico.
“We saw what happened in 1846 when they took half the territory,” he said. “It was wrong then and it’s wrong now.”
“What about around the world then?” said Arpaio. “So you’re against the military going anywhere around the world?”
“I can’t think of a good cause to go into another country except for humanitarian reasons,” Morones said.
“Then I never should’ve been there,” Arpaio countered. “I should’ve never been operational (in Mexico), in gun battles, working with the president. Is that what you’re saying?”
“Quite possibly,” Morones replied.
Morones said he had originally planned to speak with Arpaio in a more private setting without the media throng. Arpaio agreed to honor the request and began moving towards his personal office.
Arapio’s office is adorned with pictures of himself posing with presidents and key political figures, promotional posters which he is glad to autograph for the public, plush-doll figurines of prisoners wearing pink underwear and a faux-antique wooden sign behind his desk reading, “If you don’t want to do the time…don’t do the crime.”
Morones’ videographer on site to document the event asked Arpaio why the inmates are required to wear pink underwear.
“What the? The world’s caving in and you’re talking about pink underwear? I mean that’s, that’s amazing,” said Arpaio.
Arpaio said the reason the underwear were dyed pink was to prevent inmates from stealing them upon release from jail.
“That’s the official reason,” said Arpaio. “You wanna know the unofficial reason, since I’m a very honest guy? They hate pink. You got it? They don’t like pink underwear.”
Arpaio expressed gratitude to Morones for being able to engage in a reasonable discussion, even if they were of different minds. He said his relationship with protesters and demonstrators had gradually devolved over the years.
“I used to be able to talk to the demonstrators,” he said. “But now I can’t talk because when I say anything, they scream and the TV is there, they get their word on and I get mine and that’s it.”
Morones said he felt that there was a time and place for freedom of speech to be exercised.
“I don’t condemn those people for doing that,” he said. “But I also don’t support anybody, whether it’s them or anybody else, promoting violence as a result of their demonstration.”
Morones said the media had degenerated from reporting news to reporting opinions designed to exploit the country’s polarized political and ideological climate.
“You and I disagree on a lot of things and agree on some things, but we’re dialoguing,” said Morones. “There’s other people who want to do this, but somebody has to take the first step.”
Morones concurred with Arpaio’s earlier statement that President Obama would be better suited to seek the council of the sheriff and himself than those he was discussing the matter with.
“We’re the ones on the front lines, like you said,” Morones said. “What does Arnold Schwarzenegger know about this? He’s in Sacramento, he’s out of touch. And even though New York is a border state, they’re looking at this from far away. The people that are most afraid of the border are the people that are furthest from the border because they have no idea what’s really going on.”
Arpaio and Morones agreed that the U.S. should offer Mexico foreign aid and assistance, partially under the logic that boosting Mexico’s economy and job market might result in fewer illegal immigrants. Arpaio said Mexico was an oil producer and a reasonably wealthy country.
“Why isn’t that developed?” he said. “Is it the internal problems that have been here for years and years?”
Morones said although Mexico has risen from the 50th most powerful economy in the world to the 12th, there still remained a gaping chasm between number 12 and number one.
“You can build that up with factories and build up that economy,” Arpaio said. “Let’s get over there and help them bilaterally. I don’t mean invade Mexico, but use all our resources that we can to try and stop this crime over there. Send a message out.”
“We ought to go to a good Mexican restaurant,” said Arpaio. “I can’t go to a Mexican restaurant around here. Are you kidding? Either they run out the back door or they spit in my food. I can’t go anywhere. Maybe you can help me. I can’t go to McDonald’s. I raided that.”
Arpaio confessed to a grudging respect for Morones as a man of clarity and conviction.
“You don’t have to say nice things about me,” said Arpaio. “This isn’t a love affair. But we do have to have a little mutual respect.”
Morones was granted access, as Arpaio promised, to the notorious Tent City jail.
“You’re lucky it’s not summertime, because it’s not 130 degrees today” said Arpaio. “But I told them, you go into the tent, you talk to anybody you want. I must be a little strange. Because if I’ve got so much to hide, why do I let anybody go in there, talk to all the inmates? I could care less.”
Officer Ramirez, a deputy at the jail, served as a greeter and escort through the security vestibule just inside the jail’s interior, leading to a facility called a day room.
“This dayroom is open 24 hours with the exception of lockdown, when we have emergencies, or for lunch and stuff,” said Ramirez, who explained that the day room was there to cool off the inmates from the harsh desert climate when necessary.
Inside the day room a few scattered groups congregated around a deck of cards or a game of dominoes, a pair of showers on the far wall and a television set high out of reach, nestled in the corner right above the ceiling. Sterilizers and cleaning products did little to mask the stench of perspiration.
“This is the best part about this whole place,” said Nima Hadadi, an Iranian-American inmate at Tent City serving time for a felony probation violation. “Other than that it’s miserable.”
Much has been made in the media of moldy bologna sandwiches, a rumor that was quickly confirmed by inmates.
“Oh yeah, that’s true,” said Robert Holden, another incarcerated inmate. “On the weekends usually. We usually get peanut butter sandwiches on weekdays.”
Inmates are given two meals a day, a “brunch” and a hot meal that they refer to as “chow.”
“Basically you can figure out what you’re gonna have the next day by looking at what you had the day before,” says Hadadi. “That’s gonna be what you’re gonna have tomorrow except with water added to it. It’s just slop. Everyday. Slop.”
“You wouldn’t even feed that to your dogs,” said Viki Fangupo, an inmate from Tonga.
Unlike prisoners, jails are generally for terms of less than one year. Because of the shorter terms inmates are given less freedoms than those serving long prison sentences.
“I’d rather do 10 years in prison than one year here,” said Hadadi. “I’d rather throw away that long instead of being here. It’s that bad.”
One freedom of the outside world retained by inmates is reading.
“Yeah, we can have books,” said Hadadi. “This isn’t Farenheit 451.”
Outside in the Tent City the sight resembles an army barracks. In some of the rolled up rain-tarps on the tops of the bunks, pigeons nest and lay eggs. A watchtower not too far in the distance of the compound glares stubbornly under the big open desert sky. A sign says “Vacancy.”