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Explainer: Why Trump pardoned a former sheriff who 'racially profiled' illegal immigrants

“America’s toughest sheriff” Joe Arpaio was a vocal supporter of the US President from the outset.

A TOUGH-TALKING former sheriff in the US state of Arizona pursued illegal immigrants so zealously, that his approach led to him getting on the wrong side of the law himself.

The 85-year-old veteran cop Joe Arpaio was charged and convicted of criminal contempt of court last month, for violating a court order telling him to leave enforcement of immigration crimes to federal authorities.

He has been spared prison, however, due to the backing of US President Donald Trump, who granted Arpaio a pardon this week.

Who is Joe Arpaio?

Arizona Sheriff Pardon Taken in 2009, this picture shows Arpaio issuing directions to convicted illegal immigrants. Source: Ross D Franklin AP/PA Images

Former sheriff of Maricopa County in Arizona, Joe Arpaio made national headlines for his extremely hardline stance on illegal immigration.

He cultivated a self-anointed status of “America’s toughest sheriff” in the media, with his methods of enforcing an illegal immigration crackdown.

While immigration offences are usually dealt with at a federal level, Arpaio chose to make it a local issue, making hundreds of arrests in traffic patrols that sought out immigrants and business raids in which officers targeted immigrants who used fraudulent IDs to get jobs.

In recent years, he had used headline-grabbing tactics such as jailing inmates in tents during scorching summer heat and making them wear pink underwear.

Arpaio himself once likened an encampment to a concentration camp, although he later backed away from that remark.

He also boasted about serving inmates the cheapest meals in the United States: prison slop sometimes unrecognizable as food, costing just 15 or 20 US cents per meal to prepare.

Although his methods had earned support – he was re-elected by Maricopa County locals every year since 1992 – he was also the subject of a number of civil rights cases and, in 2011, a judge in a racial profiling lawsuit issued an injunction preventing Arpaio from detaining anyone purely on the basis of being a suspected illegal immigrant.

Despite this court order, Arpaio’s department continued to engage in such patrols.

Last year, he was charged with wilfully refusing to comply, or not ensuring that it was obeyed.

The sheriff had acknowledged prolonging his patrols for nearly a year and a half but insisted it was not intentional. He also blamed one of his former lawyers in the racial profiling case for not properly explaining the importance of the court order.

US District Judge Susan Bolton rejected all Arpaio’s key arguments, saying the lawyer had clearly informed him of the order and that a top aide also read part of it aloud to him during a staff meeting.

She said: “Not only did [the] defendant abdicate responsibility, he announced to the world and to his subordinates that he was going to continue business as usual no matter who said otherwise”.

Where does Trump come into it?

Trump Arpaio Source: Mary Altaffer AP/PA Images

Perhaps unsurprisingly given his stance on illegal immigration, Arpaio was a vocal supporter of Donald Trump’s candidacy from the outset.

Trump’s rhetoric chimed in with what approach the sheriff had been taken, and he was present at one of the now-President’s first major campaign rallies in Phoenix, Arizona in August 2015.

Arpaio was one of Trump’s earliest, and loudest, backers for the presidency at a time when many within the Republican party scoffed at his chances. He also happens to share a birthday with Trump – 14 June.

During his campaign – and since taking office – Trump’s promises on a Mexican border wall and clampdown on immigration were not dissimilar from Arpaio’s headline-grabbing actions.

And, with Trump visiting Arizona earlier this week, talk of a pardon for the former sheriff began to gather momentum.

As President, Trump has the power “to grant reprieves and pardons for offences against the United States, except in cases of impeachment”.

“He kept Arizona safe”

Arpaio was due to be sentenced in October, after being found guilty of wilfully ignoring the court’s direction. A pardon now sees him avoid jail altogether.

At the Arizona rally earlier in the week, Trump refused to offer a pardon then, but gauged what supporters of his thought of the sheriff.

White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders said Trump wouldn’t discuss or take action on a pardon “at any point [on the day of the Arizona rally],” even though the President had told Fox News he was considering it.

Trump said at the rally that the only reason he wouldn’t pardon Arpaio from the stage was to avoid controversy for the moment.

Trump teased a pardon for the former sheriff, asking the crowd what they thought of him.

Loud cheers erupted.

“So was Sheriff Joe convicted for doing his job?” Trump asked.

“I’ll make a prediction: I think he’s going to be just fine.”

And, sure enough, a pardon was forthcoming for Arpaio with Trump using his preferred platform to make the announcement.

Tweet by @Donald J. Trump Source: Donald J. Trump/Twitter

With reporting from AFP

Read: Protesters clash in Phoenix as Trump defends his response to Charlottesville violence

Read: 85-year-old who boasted of being ‘America’s toughest sheriff’ found guilty of federal crime

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About the author:

Sean Murray

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