TV cameras help sheriff see the light on migrant arrests

Mar. 5, 2006 12:00 AM

By the time I got Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio on the telephone Friday morning, there was a line of reporters behind me clamoring for a bit of his time. Just the way he likes it.

The day before, sheriff's deputies had arrested more than 50 people on suspicion of conspiring with a "coyote," or human smuggler, to illegally enter the United States.

Last year, there was another case of human smuggling that got a lot of attention. Like the case last week, it also involved the sheriff and his new best friend, Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas.

Only back then, Arpaio and Thomas were at odds. In fact, Arpaio dismissed the idea of rounding up the people who were being smuggled into the country, saying, "Being illegal is not a serious crime."

This comment followed the arrest by one of Arpaio's deputies of Army reservist Patrick Haab. He's the young man who held seven Mexican nationals at gunpoint at an Arizona rest stop.

"You can't go around pulling guns on people," Arpaio said back then.

The county attorney disagreed. He said that Haab was justified in pulling the gun because the border-crossers were guilty of "conspiracy" under federal law. Haab has subsequently filed a lawsuit against Arpaio. Following the Haab case, Thomas worked to have a state law passed that says border-crossers can be charged with conspiracy. Not long ago, he complained that local police were not enforcing it. The police say that they didn't have the manpower. Arpaio didn't appear to have it, either.

It's amazing the resources that become available, however, when the sheriff knows that he might get on TV. He even invited his pal, the county attorney, to share in the glory of a local TV press conference.

Still, I wanted to know why he went along with Thomas this time but didn't in the Haab case.

"The Haab case was different," the sheriff said. "He pulled a gun on seven people who looked like they were Mexicans. This is apples to oranges."

Actually, it's undocumented immigrants to undocumented immigrants. Thomas let Haab off the hook because his office decided the Mexican nationals were guilty of conspiracy to cross the border. Which Arpaio said was "not a serious crime."

"This is a different," the sheriff told me.

Not according to Barnett Lotstein, Thomas' special assistant deputy attorney. He said, "With Haab the question was: Can we apply the conspiracy law to the violation of a federal statute? And we did."

So, Arpaio's deputies could have arrested the people held at gunpoint by Haab on a federal conspiracy charge? I asked.

"Yes, of course," Lotstein said. "Even without the state statute. That was our view. But there were conflicting views. The state statute put all that to bed."

Under the new law, illegally crossing the border is a felony. Which means that people who sneak into Arizona in order to serve as cheap laborers could now spend 2 1/2 years in prison, where they will get a roof over their heads and three meals a day at taxpayer expense.

I'm not sure how that solves the problems of illegal immigration, but it does wonders for the political careers of people like Thomas and Arpaio.

"Let me put it this way," the sheriff said. "You're going to disagree with me, but I don't do things to get on the evening news and then say goodbye. When I do things, I continue to do them."

I don't disagree. When Arpaio decides on a policy he sticks with it . . . as long as it keeps getting him on TV.

Reach Montini at or (602) 444-8978. Read his blog at

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