Pulse of America: 'Toughest sheriff’ Joe Arpaio and a presidential pardon

Figure whose zero-tolerance policy on illegal immigrants landed him a court conviction was a Trump supporter ‘from day one’

Joe Arpaio remembers exactly where he was when he learned he had received a presidential pardon from US president Donald Trump.

"It was my wife's birthday, and we were getting ready to go to the Italian restaurant across the street. My lawyers came round saying they had a document for me to sign. I thought it was a joke at first, but then we saw on TV that the White House had issued a statement. I insisted we went to dinner but I couldn't get to my meatballs with the media calling."

Arpaio, the 86-year-old who dubs himself "America's toughest sheriff" , is one of the most infamous law enforcement officials in the United States. As sheriff of Maricopa County for more than 24 years, he built a nationwide reputation for a zero-tolerance policy on rounding up illegal immigrants and a tough attitude to law enforcement.

His notorious tent-city prison just south of Phoenix forced prisoners to work outdoors in blistering heat and wear pink underwear. Some were chained together as they worked, prompting outcries from human rights groups giving him national prominence.


Arpaio’s tough stance on immigration resulted in a court conviction. He was found guilty last year of criminal contempt of court over his “flagrant disregard” for a court order to stop his immigration round-ups, which were deemed to illegally target Latinos.

Trump's decision to pardon the sheriff was seen in part as a move by him to express solidarity with a man who had backed him from the beginning

His defiance of the court order could have landed him six months in prison, but Trump intervened.

At a rally in Phoenix in August 2017 the president first floated the idea that he might pardon “Sheriff Joe”, to cheers from his supportive audience. A week later, Arapaio got the news of the pardon.

Common ground

Today, the framed presidential pardon signed by Trump has pride of place on Arpaio's wall in his Fountain Hills office, just outside Phoenix.

The pardon has reinvigorated the former law enforcement officer, who was voted out by Maricopa County voters in 2016 after 24 years as sheriff. Undeterred, he is now contesting, in November's mid-term elections, the Republican nomination for the Senate seat vacated by Jeff Flake.

Trump's decision to pardon the sheriff – the first such action of his presidency – was seen in part as a move by him to express solidarity with a man who had backed him from the beginning. Arpaio, who has long been an institution in Arizona Republican politics, was one of the first to back the billionaire businessman when he emerged as a candidate for the presidency.

"I supported him the day he announced," he recalls as he sits in his office chair in front of an American flag. "His first rally happened to be here in Phoenix in late 2015. At that stage there was about 17 or 18 people running for president. I introduced him, but nobody would stand next to him." A few days before the Iowa caucuses, Arpaio came out and officially endorsed Trump.

“My gut told me he was going to win. I’ve met many presidential candidates, so I knew he had it. I’m pretty proud of the fact that I was with him from day one,” he says.

Why would they bring young people into this country illegally, risking their lives, bringing young people across the desert?

The common ground between the two men was obvious – immigration. For Arpaio, who has built his career on implementing a zero tolerance approach on this issue, Trump was someone who tackled it head-on. “During the campaign, Trump was the one that brought up illegal immigration. It made the other 16 candidates a little concerned – they then had to face up to the issue of what to do about illegal immigration. Election after election everybody talks about it, they go down to the border and stand in front of the wire fence, but they’re scared of agitating voters.”

Arpaio’s stance on the current immigration crisis is unbending.

A fairness issue

Does he believe any of the 11 million undocumented migrants living in the US, many of whom pay taxes, should be regularised? He pauses before replying definitively: “No. They should go back and then come back legally.” This includes “Dreamers”, the undocumented people who arrived in the US as children.

"Why should we legalise someone who has violated the law, who has sneaked into our country. I look at this as a fairness issue. You have people from around the world, from Europe, Ireland who wait for years to be able to come into the United States, and yet you have someone crossing the border illegally and you take care of them. That's unfair."

As for the crisis at the Texas border that has seen children separated from their parents, Arpaio is similarly tough.

"When the adults bring them in, they ought to be charged with an extra crime. Why would they bring young people into this country illegally, risking their lives, bringing young people across the desert?" He also argues the Mexican government has a role to play. Noting that many immigrants are coming from South America through Mexico, he says the Mexican government should arrest them before they cross the border.

As for November’s election, Arpaio says he is quietly confident, though he accepts he will have a tough battle. His main focus will be getting through the Republican primaries on August 28th.

He faces two Republican rivals for the Senate seat – congresswoman Martha McSally and Kelli Ward, a right-wing candidate who has been backed by former Trump advisers Steve Bannon and Sebastian Gorka.

A recent poll put McSally well ahead of Ward and Arpaio, in part because of a subtle repositioning in recent months. While the Tucson-based Congresswoman was reticent about her support for Trump, in recent months she has been allying herself with the president on certain issues, a sign perhaps of the increasing sway Trump is holding among Republican voters.

I want an investigation into what they did to me. There are similarities with what happened to the president – the same actors

It is a shift not lost on Arpaio, who notes – without mentioning his two rivals directly – that he has been a diehard Trump supporter from the beginning. “All of these opponents of mine, once they discovered how to spell his name – once they see the polls – then they support him. If he was way down in the polls, they wouldn’t want to be near him.”


While many see Arpaio as a Roy Moore-style candidate – the controversial former chief justice in Alabama who lost a special election there earlier this year – Arpaio points out that he has frequently had to win the support of an electorate of more than four million people when he was running for sheriff, while his opponents have experience only of running in smaller district elections.

He also alleges a conspiracy against him. He wrote to attorney general Jeff Sessions in recent weeks calling for an investigation into the Department of Justice's role in agreeing to hold the contempt of court case against him weeks before the 2016 sheriff election, which he lost.

In this sense he finds common ground with Trump. “I want an investigation into what they did to me. There are similarities with what happened to the president – the same actors. I want something done about it.”

While he says he hasn’t spoken to Trump in a while, he knows he can pick up the phone to him. He says the president called his wife several times when she was diagnosed with cancer. He notes that he and Trump share a birthday, which is also “flag day” in the US. “He knows that I will be a strong voice for the president in the senate.”

“My hero,” he says, referring to Trump, as he poses for a photograph beside the presidential pardon on his wall.

Tomorrow: Why Democrats hope that middle class voters in the American south can give them back control of Congress