"Want to see the tent where all the Mexicans are?" Arpaio asks in a conspiratorial whisper. "Huh?"
The curtain is back open. And so here we are in the triple-digit heat, entering the sheriff's Tent City, where thousands of inmates he and deputies have picked up live in the open, biding their time for misdemeanors ranging from drunk driving to street-level drug dealing. "August 2nd, 1993, right here," Arpaio says, poking a bit of gravel with his foot where he broke ground on the site. "My favorite spot."
From the start, the jail was notorious for its minimalist living conditions, which Arpaio says have saved Maricopa County millions of dollars in building and operational costs. Arpaio fed prisoners two meals a day (valued at 30 cents each), banned cigarettes and coffee, and boasted that temperatures in the summer can hit 141 degrees. His constituents lapped it up, and the national press came calling. Arpaio brought back chain gangs and paraded prisoners through the streets to be jeered at. In 1996, he published his first book, America's Toughest Sheriff, which was praised by Sen. John McCain as "no-nonsense."
Flanked by Arpaio's two large body men, we pass through a series of jail yards, first for the women (where one of Arpaio's deputies warns me, "Remember that you're a married man – heh heh"), then for the male prisoners, who idle torpidly in the shade. Inside Arpaio's jails, according to the federal lawsuit, guards refer to Latino inmates as "wetbacks," "Mexican bitches," "stupid Mexicans" and "fucking Mexicans." Female prisoners, the suit claims, were forced to sleep in their own menstrual blood; officers refused to respond to the inmates' pleas because they were made in Spanish. Meanwhile, Arpaio's jailers allegedly circulated e-mail images of a Chihuahua in a bathing suit, calling it "a rare photo of a Mexican Navy Seal."
As the prisoners recognize Arpaio, he pulls out a pen and offers to sign autographs on postcards that show him playing with puppy dogs in an air-conditioned part of the jail. Some of the women inmates take him up on the offer. When one woman says she's in for selling drugs for one of the Mexican cartels, Arpaio brightens. "Do they know me?" he asks.
In the tents reserved for "the illegals," I meet a young inmate originally from Chiapas, Mexico, who tells me through an interpreter that he's been working in the U.S. since 1996. Many members of his immediate family are American citizens, but he now faces deportation over a drunk-driving charge. Other men chime in with similar tales. Arpaio steps inside and proudly holds up a digital thermometer to show me that it is 128 degrees inside the tent.
"There's a lot of people here who did a lot of things wrong," says an inmate who steps forward to confront Arpaio, in English. "But a lot of people were just working in peace and didn't do nothing. Just leave those people alone."
The man from Chiapas asks Arpaio, "You're against us being here for work?" "No, not for work," says Arpaio. "For being here illegally. Not for work. You're here illegally and you're fake."
Arpaio, who speaks a little Spanish with a pronounced Italian accent, is hated in the communities where these men lived. In Hispanic areas of Phoenix, you can see decals on cars that read FUCK ARPAIO (which is also the title of a popular Chicano anti-Arpaio rap song). The sheriff argues that he's simply doing the job the federal government has failed to do, arresting illegal immigrants on the pretext of violating state criminal laws and then handing them over to federal authorities. Arpaio claims he's detained 51,000 illegal immigrants since 2007.
Illegal immigration is a top concern among voters in Arizona, tied closely to fears of drugs, crime and unemployment. Maricopa, the fourth-largest county in America, is 50 miles from the Mexican border, but Phoenix, its major population center, is a destination for illegal immigrants and drug dealers alike. Thirty percent of the county's residents are Hispanic, and their numbers are soaring – up 47 percent over the past decade. But the money and political power in Maricopa still reside in the largely white and conservative suburbs around Phoenix.
It is those whites and conservatives, as it happens, who employ many of the illegal immigrants targeted by Arpaio. But the sheriff is careful to steer clear of the white owners who profit from exploiting immigrant labor. In his 20 years wearing the badge, in fact, Arpaio has busted only three businesses for hiring illegal immigrants. "You've got to prove that they knew," he says, "and it's very difficult." Instead, Arpaio goes after the undocumented workers they hire, notifying the media every time he rounds up Latino fruit pickers or factory laborers. In the process, according to the Justice Department, Arpaio has frequently arrested and detained U.S. citizens and legal residents of Latino origin, including children, for hours at a time without a charge or a warrant.
Jailing Mexicans, of course, is what sells to his base. In an influential retirement community like Sun City, where the median age is 73, Arpaio serves as an armed security cop keeping out the riffraff. And he's not alone: All of the most prominent Republican politicians in the state, including Gov. Jan Brewer, have risen to power by inflaming anti-immigrant sentiment. They blame the Obama administration for failing to crack down on illegal immigrants, even though deportation has spiked under Obama. And contrary to their overheated rhetoric, there's almost no relationship between illegal immigration and crime. "Illegal immigrants make up less than 10 percent of those arrested," says Charles Katz, a professor of criminology at Arizona State University who conducts annual studies on crime in Maricopa County. "They're involved in less criminal activity than native-born Americans." Illegal immigrants, the studies show, are twice as likely to be employed than U.S. citizens and half as likely to use illegal drugs – yet thanks to Arpaio's tactics, they're far more likely to be arrested for drug offenses.
But Arpaio doesn't care about the complicated realities of immigration. For him, the equation is simple: Fear equals votes. While I'm with him, he happily trumpets reports that Mexican drug cartels and prison gangs are offering a reward for his head – proof, in his mind, of his effectiveness, and evidence that the Latino community harbors criminals. "He's vilified Latinos in such a way that normal people, they're scared to death," says Bill Richardson, a retired police officer. Such terror, in turn, only makes it harder for the police to do their jobs. "It creates fear in the Latino community for law enforcement," he says.