The Notorious Sheriff Of Phoenix Drops In On Houston

Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio was in town this Saturday pimping his new book, Joe's Law. Usually, where Sheriff Arpaio goes, protest and controversy follow, and this event was no exception.

Even before the Sheriff made it to Houston, problems ensued. Texans For Immigration Reform (T.F.I.R.) and U.S. Border Watch had intended to host the book signing at the Norris Convention Center in the new Town & County complex. But early in the week, the development company demanded that they cancel the event "because of the threat of dissident groups." The Marriott Westchase would have to suffice.

For months, opposing groups on the subject of immigration have been squaring off at town hall meetings and immigration rallies all over the city. Pro-immigration groups accuse anti-immigration groups of being racists. Anti-immigration groups claim they are only interested in enforcing the law and they have nothing against legal Mexicans.

I volunteered to cover the event to find out for myself. Being a Latina and a reporter for a "liberal" paper, I wasn't sure what to expect and I couldn't help but feel nervous walking into the event, even with my brand spanking new press badge.

About 100 protesters gathered outside the Marriott that morning to greet Sheriff Arpaio and the attendees of the event. Shouts of "Illegals go home" and "Racists go home" were hurled at each other for the duration of the talk. Arpaio would later mention his astonishment that there wasn't the normal 2,000 protestors to greet him. "Are gas prices that high.....or was it the rain?" Arpaio mused.

Inside, about 250 people showed up to meet the Arizona sheriff and most of the folks I approached didn't have a problem talking to me. I was, however, followed around by some attendees with cameras and intensely curious stares the entire time I was there.

"We're not racists. We're not against Mexicans. We're for the order of law," said Gray Suydam. Shortly after that however, I was approached by a woman who told me that she didn't like me and that I didn't belong there. She, of course, refused to be interviewed or explain what she meant by that.

"She wasn't one of us," said Nancy Lucky, the co-chair of the event. Regardless, she was one of the attendees and attracted by what Arpaio represents.

And I couldn't ignore the obvious -- I was being watched and scrutinized by several members of the crowd who shunned the camera as I took pictures at the event.

Attendees paid $30 for the opportunity to buy a book and meet the sheriff but another attendee, Liliana Castrillón was there to give Arpaio an award: The 2009 Bull Connor Award for his "promotion of racial discrimination, disregard of human rights, abuse of power and general hatred of the "other." Connor was the infamous Alabama public safety commissioner who used fire hoses and attack dogs on black protestors in the 60's.

But human rights and racism were controversial points to most everyone I interviewed. "The people that don't want to talk about the facts always talk about human rights. Show me where human rights are in our Constitution," said Mary Williams. "[Arpaio] isn't really the issue. The issue is are they going to enforce our constitution or not?"

"I heard the racists card. That always seems to be the first...thing that they'll bring up when they have...nothing else to argue about," Ignacio Ramos said during his introduction of Arpaio. Ramos is one of the border agents convicted for shooting an unarmed immigrant in the butt and lying to supervisors about the incident. Former President Bush pardoned him and he was released from prison in February. He now lives in Pasadena.

The crowd applauded wildly for Arpaio when he took the stage but after an hour, I wasn't the only one looking at my watch. There were the expected jeers when President Obama's name was mentioned and cheers whenever Arpaio talked about imprisoning "illegals."

When Arpaio turned his attention to missing Harris County Sheriff Adrian Garcia, things got ugly. Someone in the crowd yelled out "He's only sheriff because he's Mexican." I didn't get an explanation about that comment either.

The Q&A started an hour and 15 minutes into the talk and several people left before it finally ended 45 minutes later. Most of Arpaio's talk was about how he was being target for doing his job enforcing the law and going after "illegals." He also defended his treatment of inmates in his "tent cities."

He referenced the time he attracted media attention for turning the only air-conditioned jail in Maricopa County into a kennel. "I don't double-bunk dogs, I do double-bunk the inmates," Arpaio said. "We found some tents [and some land] next to the dump, dog pound and the waste disposal plant."

He defended this by drawing comparisons to the living conditions of soldiers overseas. And about the pink underwear he forces inmates to wear, he explained that the inmates were smuggling the underwear out when they were released to sell it on the black market. "That's the official reason, " said Arpaio. "I always have an official reason so I can win the lawsuits and then I have my reason and my reason is they hate pink....They may like it in California but they don't like it in Arizona."

The whole two-hour talk didn't stray from those sentiments. "If people don't care about abusing immigrants or criminals, fine. Then they should focus on the money," says Castrillón, the protester who handed Arpaio the Bill Connor award. She has a point.

The Phoenix New Times reported that Sheriff Arpaio's style of implementing the law had cost the county $41.4 million as of December 2008.  Sheriff Arpaio also boasted at the event that he had been hit with four more lawsuits just in the last month and promised to continue doling out his style of justice.

That won't keep him from making money writing books and touring to preach to the choir, apparently.

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