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Opinion | Marcela García

Where is the justice for Arpaio’s victims?

Former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio and President Trump.Damon Winter/New York Times

When President Trump pardoned former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio Friday night, it was an endorsement of one of the nation’s most blatant racists, a man who has displayed boundless and illegal animosity toward immigrants. One clear byproduct: It sends a haunting message to immigrants and signals a green light for law enforcement to violate civil rights.

Thousands of people were terrorized during Arpaio’s two decades in office in Maricopa County, Arizona’s most populous county, covering more than 9,000 miles and the city of Phoenix. For years, the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” got away with being a racist while wearing a badge.


This wasn’t a merciful pardon issued to a remorseful convicted criminal. Last month, the 85-year-old former sheriff was found guilty of criminal contempt for violating a 2011 federal judge’s order to stop racially profiling Latinos. He always maintained he didn’t do anything wrong.

His victims in that case, a long-running civil rights lawsuit, included US citizens whom Arpaio’s deputies illegally stopped or harassed just because they looked Hispanic and, therefore, “illegal.” It was a blatant violation of their constitutional rights.

But the full extent of Arpaio’s reign of terror didn’t begin there.

In 1997, a few years after Arpaio assumed office, the US Department of Justice sued him after an investigation found rampant mistreatment of inmates in his jails and a pattern of excessive force by the sheriff’s staff. Officers hog-tied inmates and used stun guns on them while they were handcuffed or in restraining chairs. The lawsuit was dismissed in a settlement, but Arpaio’s methods of abuse didn’t change at all.

As a result, many prisoners died at an alarming rate without explanation. According to the Phoenix New Times, taxpayers in Maricopa have paid more than $140 million to litigate and settle countless claims of brutality while Arpaio was sheriff.


By the mid-2000s, Arpaio had found another target to terrorize and criminalize: unauthorized immigrants (much like Trump did during the presidential campaign.) Arpaio became obsessed with enforcing federal immigration law, conducting workplace raids and immigration patrols where his staff stopped people who looked Hispanic and arrested those who were illegally in the country.

Then there were the more than 400 cases of sexual assault — many of them involving kids — that Arpaio’s office inadequately investigated between 2005 and 2007. Many of the victims were the children of undocumented immigrants. In one case, a 13-year-old girl was knocked unconscious and sexually assaulted in her home in El Mirage, Arizona, by a man who said his car had broken down and he needed to use the phone. In El Mirage alone, where the sheriff’s office was under contract to provide police services, Arpaio’s investigators failed to follow through in at least 32 reported child molestations — with victims as young as two years old.

The courts eventually caught up with Arpaio. But then came Trump and his pardon. Meanwhile Arpaio’s victims remain scattered across Arizona and beyond. Where is the justice for them?

In this morally bankrupt act, the president is endorsing a two-tiered system of justice, effectively telling law enforcement officials that when it comes to some aspects of doing their job, the rules don’t apply.


This pardon is not only a personal affront to all of Arpaio’s victims and the Hispanic community at large, but also gravely weakens America’s rule of law.

Marcela García is a Globe editorial writer. She can be reached at Follow her on Twitter @marcela_elisa.