In a democracy, one of the indispensable principles is the notion that no person is above the law. This precept is the great stabilizer of nations and provides the foundation for rule of law in the land. When all people are held accountable to the same set of rules, abuse and tyranny are minimized and even the least powerful among us have access to justice.
But with the pardoning of Sheriff Joe Arpaio on August 25th, President Trump trampled on this core principle and told the world in no uncertain terms that he believes some people in the United States are indeed above the law.
You are likely familiar with Arpaio, whose infamous tenure as Sheriff of Maricopa County, Arizona was defined by systematic racial discrimination, cruelty, and wanton disregard for the law. These pages are too few to provide a full accounting of his unlawful conduct, but here is a brief overview:
Arpaio ordered his deputies to target Latinos and other minorities in traffic stops, workplace raids, and neighborhood sweeps, often illegally detaining them without reasonable suspicion that they had violated any laws. These racially motivated, pretextual stops were used as a way to screen the immigration status of people who were perceived to be “foreign.”
In the Maricopa County Jail, Arpaio erected a tent city outdoors surrounded by an electric fence which he proudly compared to a “concentration camp” where he kept “all the Mexicans.” Temperatures inside the tents regularly exceeded 120 degrees during the summer, and inmates were forced to work in chain gangs reminiscent of the Jim Crow era.
He was so obsessed with targeting undocumented immigrants that he neglected to investigate sex crimes, including abuse against children.
In 2007, the ACLU filed a class action lawsuit against Arpaio alleging that he was using racially biased policing to illegally enforce federal immigration law. The ACLU prevailed and a federal court ordered Arpaio to cease these illegal activities in 2011. However, Arpaio deliberately allowed these practices to continue unabated, and even bragged to the media that he had no intention of changing his ways. This led to a civil contempt proceeding and ultimately a criminal conviction for contempt of court, carrying a sentence of up to six months in prison. His sentencing was set for October 6th this year.
And now, because of Trump’s pardon, the countless families tormented by this man’s 24 year reign of terror will not have justice. But even beyond that, Trump’s pardon of Arpaio sends a message loud and clear that if rogue law enforcement agencies wish to enforce federal immigration law, target people of color, or commit wholesale violations of constitutional rights, they may do so with impunity.
This has chilling implications for New Mexico and other border states. How many wannabe Arpaios lurking in the wings will be emboldened to follow his lead now that they see that racially discriminatory policing bears the presidential seal of approval?
Fortunately, the ACLU of New Mexico has spent the better part of a decade advocating against the unholy alliance of local police and the federal immigration law enforcement here in our state. Many of our largest communities have repudiated the Arpaio model of policing and enacted immigrant-friendly policies that build trust and cooperation between local police and immigrant communities. But that does not give us license to rest on our laurels.
It remains incumbent upon us all to remain vigilant and ensure that Arpaio’s brand of racist, authoritarian policing finds no purchase in our communities. If you hear about local law enforcement cooperating in federal immigration raids or checkpoints, be sure to alert us here at the ACLU of New Mexico. Because despite whatever Trump might say or do, we still believe that no person is above the law. And we intend to keep it that way.