In a stunning turnabout, some of Sheriff Joe Arpaio's firmest allies distanced themselves from his hard-line tactics when the Maricopa County Board of Supervisors voted to postpone accepting $1.6 million to aid his outlandish enforcement sweeps.
Demonstrating that the sheriff's actions are wearing thin, the board responded to the requests of Valley Interfaith Project and others to hold off on accepting additional state funds for immigration enforcement that the Arizona legislature earmarked for the sheriff, despite huge budget cuts for education and human services.
With the current economic crisis gripping Arizona, it is obscene for the legislature to be redirecting dollars to the Sheriff's Office for a highly questionable operation that is currently under federal investigation for civil rights violations while children and vulnerable populations are going without health care and teachers are losing their jobs. In scripture, we are repeatedly warned not to violate the rights of the widow, the orphan, and the alien.
It is increasingly clear that the sheriff's immigration antics are a ruse to distract from his department's serious shortcomings. The legislative earmark, initiated by the anti-immigrant Senator Russell Pearce, simply supports the misplaced political priorities of both Pearce and Arpaio, and does not help the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office (MCSO) to fulfill its mandate. MCSO could focus on running safe and humane jails that didn't cost the taxpayers $44 million in lawsuits to date. It could serve 40,000 outstanding felony warrants rather than film a reality TV show. The sheriff's immigration sweeps terrorize the Latino community but do little to capture dangerous individuals. But Arpaio and Pearce have discovered a winning formula: Be ruthless, exploit the fears of the people, and you can be elected. In a perverse way, these politicians need their scapegoats.
Surrendering to these fears has cost the residents of Maricopa County, in both dollars and safety. If anything, the more the sheriff does to harass the undocumented and the Latino population at large, the less safe our county becomes. No immigrant will report a serious crime to a law enforcement agency if they feel it will jeopardize the unity of their family.
The supervisors made a wise decision to seek additional justification for accepting these funds. Maybe they sense that to reward Sheriff Arpaio for his excesses is like giving bonuses to AIG executives. It is a cautious first step out of the darkness of fear and into the light. Other leaders like Mayor Gordon have tread this path before them, choosing to disavow the politics of fear despite the storms of controversy. As Christians, we know the kingdom of God is built by those who do not surrender to the fear of the unknown. After all, we follow the example of our Lord, who hears the cries of those in the storm and calms the winds of our fears: "Do not be afraid."
Connie Anderson is an executive member of Valley Interfaith Project, a congregation-based non-profit organization in Maricopa County which organizes families from different faith traditions, economic levels, and cultural backgrounds to work together on social justice issues, putting scriptural values into practice in the public square.