TRIUMPH IN D.C.
The weather was muggy. The cherry blossoms were in bloom. And Sheriff Joe Arpaio was on the agenda on Capitol Hill, in a joint session of two subcommittees of the House Judiciary Committee, chaired by California congresswoman and Democrat Zoe Lofgren.
Officially, the three-hour session was meant to probe the flaws of the 287(g) program, which allows local cops to enforce federal immigration law after being trained by Immigration and Customs Enforcement. But two star witnesses from Arizona made sure that Arpaio's exploitation of the 287(g) program for political purposes, his racial profiling, and his civil rights abuses took center stage: Mesa Police Chief George Gascón and Avondale resident and Julio Mora.
There were other witnesses, from both sides of the 287(g) argument, who addressed the committee. But Room 2141 of the Rayburn House Office Building was packed that day with Joe foes, from Cactus Country and elsewhere.
Among the spectators were Maricopa County Supervisor Mary Rose Wilcox, Phoenix lawyer Antonio Bustamante, civil rights activist Salvador Reza, and Chris Newman, a lawyer with the L.A.-based National Day Laborer Organizing Network, which, along with ACORN, was instrumental in making the hearings happen.
I was there, as well. You can read the extended coverage on my Feathered Bastard blog. In general, the hearing was a score for House Dems, anti-Joe activists, and those opposed to the 287(g) program.
Though the Republicans are to be admired for their willingness to dive headfirst into the mud with a steak knife in each paw, the pro-287(g) witnesses were flops, reminding folks of the racially charged implications of 287(g), which gives law enforcement carte blanche to pursue those guilty of DWB, or driving while brown.
Amazingly, law prof Kris Kobach was picked to carry water for the pro-287(g) side. Kobach was an immigration adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft during the Bush years, but it's his alleged ties to white supremacists that muddied his credibility even before he offered his first rationalization for the 287(g) program. In a letter to the Judiciary Committee's leadership, Mark Potok of the Southern Poverty Law Center alerted the committee to Kobach's work as "senior counsel" to the "legal arm of Federation for American Immigration Reform," an organization that has taken $1.2 million from a group dedicated to eugenics, according to the SPLC. The SPLC letter quoted FAIR founder John Tanton as making statements advocating racial purity, and noted that Kobach had taken campaign contributions from FAIR for a failed 2004 congressional campaign.
Lofgren allowed Kobach's testimony in spite of the letter, and the Republicans on the committee made statements aimed at disputing the SPLC's expertise on such matters. But Kobach's usefulness as a cheerleader for 287(g) was severely undercut.
Even the Republicans' possible ringer, Virginia Beach, Virginia resident and Ray Tranchant, backfired on them. Tranchant's 16-year-old daughter Tessa and her best friend were killed by drunk driver Alfredo Ramos. Ramos was in the country illegally. Ultimately, he received 40 years for his crime.
But Tranchant's own words hurt his plea for his dead daughter by conflating all those who are undocumented in this country with criminals like Ramos. In his statement to the committee, he referred to "illegal immigrants" as "transparent criminals in a broken system that lets them kill or injure honest citizens."
Asked by GOP Congressman Steve King of Iowa to expand his remarks, Tranchant continued to place hoof in gullet.
"I don't want undesirable people in America," he said. "I don't want drunks in America . . . We want desirable people here."
Tranchant may not have meant it that way, but the phrase "undesirable people" sounded like a code word. Congressman Luis Gutierrez (D-Illinois) took Tranchant to task for his characterizations. He pointed out that the same sort of derogatory descriptions were used to condemn Italian and Irish immigrants in their day.
"They were wrong about the Irish," Gutierrez informed Tranchant. "They were wrong about the Italians . . . And they're wrong today to tarnish a whole immigrant community because of the actions of a few."
GOP ON D
The minority Republicans scored some hits during the hearing, but too often their tactics were simply diversionary and, sometimes, they exploded in their hands like mishandled grenades.
The most significant was the attempt to smear Mesa Police Chief Gascón. No doubt this was because Gascón's opening statement was particularly effective, pointing out at length the problems with the 287(g) program, the wedge it drives between the police and immigrant communities, and its potential for abuse by certain bad actors, who were left unnamed in Gascón's initial salvo.
"The impact on local law enforcement in this politically charged environment [created by the 287(g) program] can be devastating," Gascón related. "In some cases, it is setting the police profession back to the 1950s and 1960s, when police officers were sometimes viewed in minority communities as the enemy."
Gascón took some veiled swipes at Arpaio.
"In some cases, enforcement decisions are being based on politics instead of professional public-safety concerns," he said, later observing that "often, these poorly conceived and politically motivated enforcement efforts are placing officers in harm's way . . ."
Lofgren inquired about the MCSO's now-infamous, late-night immigration raid on the Mesa Library, and Gascón detailed both that raid and Arpaio's Mesa sweep in 2008. Gascón described the lack of communication with the MCSO in the case of the library raid — which had the potential for a shootout between Mesa cops and MCSO deputies. And he told about having to provide security for protesters during the Mesa sweep.
Republicans counterattacked with a red herring: Gascón's ticket to D.C. and who paid for it, as if all Gascón wanted was a free ride to Washington. The point was absurd, but they got Gascón to acknowledge that his ticket was paid for by non-profit immigration-reform groups that wanted him to testify.
Republican Congressman Ted Poe, a former judge from Texas known for once quoting Civil War Confederate general and KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest on the House floor, sunk his teeth into Gascón and wouldn't let go. He wondered whether Gascón agreed that "you dance with those that brung you," meaning that his testimony was influenced by the free plane trip.
"I take offense to that, sir," Gascón shot back. "I don't dance with anyone."
Gascón recounted his résumé, his service in the armed forces, and with the Los Angeles Police Department. Poe would have hounded him further, but his time ran out.
Sure, maybe Gascón should have ponied up the dough for his own ticket, thus avoiding controversy. But I know from local activists that Gascón didn't know he was going to testify until practically the last minute, and that they booked the ticket for him, hoping to get him on the plane. (They say Gascón refused to commit to going until he had the official invite from D.C., just a couple of days before the hearing.) In hindsight, Gascón should've just reimbursed them. Then, Poe wouldn't have had any ammo from jump.
Thing is, by replying to Poe in the strident fashion that he did, Gascón kept the GOPers from getting anywhere with the lame charge. And Avondale resident Julio Mora guilelessly countered tough Republican questioning just by being straightforward and honest.
Mora related his experience being pulled into the MCSO's raid on the Phoenix contractor HMI. Mora, 19, told how he was driving his father to work at HMI when he was cut off by two sheriff's vans. Though Mora doesn't work at HMI, and though Mora is an American citizen and his father is a legal permanent resident, they were zip-tied, taken into custody, and humiliated when they asked to use the bathroom. Mora's dad is diabetic and nearly wet his pants before he was allowed to pee next to a truck.
King asked Mora whether he would a different point of view if it had been his close family member who was killed by an illegal immigrant, instead of Tranchant's daughter.
"I would want the local police to . . . be smart about it, and enforce [the law]," he said, then turning and offering his condolences to Tranchant, who was nearby.
King followed up with an asinine query, "You're not telling me your embarrassment trumps his daughter's life?"
Mora said, "No," and several in the audience could be heard hissing King as he yielded to the chair.
Gascón and Mora beat back attempts to discredit them, leaving the Republicans face-down on their snouts, despite their best efforts. Each man also struck a blow against the 287(g) program and Arpaio.
Lofgren and fellow Dem, New York Congressman Jerrold Nadler suggested to me that more was to come, that what was brought up in the hearing would be investigated further. Does that mean another trip to D.C. for me, and maybe a subpoena for Uncle Joe? Hey, we can only hope.
So I rolled back into the PHX after the hearing, only to see a news clip of MCSO Sergeant Brett Palmer and some of his fellow beige-shirted simians outside City Hall, denouncing certain elected officials (and one police chief) who're critical of jefe Sheriff Joe Arpaio, a.k.a., Arpayaso.
"We're telling these people in power such as Phil Gordon, Mary Rose Wilcox, and Police Chief Gascón, shut up!" spat Palmer in an interview with ABC 15. "They're ignorant. They don't know what it is they're talking about."
I think most people reading this column will note the overwhelming irony of a low-level lump like Palmer calling such officials "ignorant." Palmer expressed himself with all the verbal dexterity and intelligence of Jon Heder in Napoleon Dynamite. Apparently, Wal-Mart wasn't hiring security guards the day Palmer decided to make a career of the MCSO.
There are many inside the MCSO who would like nothing better than to see Arpaio's regime corralled en masse by the feds and shipped off to Leavenworth. But Arpaio's command structure rewards incompetence, crassness, and bootlicking subservience. That is why nearly every other law enforcement entity that deals with the MCSO regards it as a dangerous joke, but a joke all the same.
All three leaders mentioned above have more class in their pinkies than Palmer does in his entire lumbering carcass. Interestingly, when I asked Mesa Police Chief Gascón at the hearings whether he considered the MCSO a professional law enforcement agency, Gascón said:
"I don't think [Arpaio] runs the agency professionally. There's a distinction. I think there are a lot of men and women who work for the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office who are very professional, dedicated police officers."
Needless to say, it doesn't look like Palmer's one of them.
On another note, I received — by happenstance — Joe Arpaio's cell phone number the other day. And since I was back in town, I wanted to ask the septuagenarian about this blubbering he's been doing in the local media, kvetching that no one invited him to the big hearing in Washington.
So I gave him a call. And, indeed, Joe did answer, saying, a bit quizzically, 'Hello?"
"Hey, Joe, this is Steve Lemons. You know, the Bird?"
"Joe, are you there?"
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I called back, figuring the call had been dropped by the cell phone service. Surely, Joe wouldn't hang up on The Bird? But Joe didn't pick up. I wanted to ask him why, if he wanted to testify at the hearings, he had told his pals at the Arizona Republic on March 12 that he had "no intention of flying to Washington to testify."
See, if Joe really wanted to testify, and for some reason the majority Dems on the House Judiciary Committee didn't want to let him, the minority Republicans on the committee — who vigorously defended Joe during the proceedings — could have called him as a minority witness. Joe's pal on the committee Arizona Republican Representative Trent Franks could've helped him out with this. Or maybe a subpoena would've been in order.
In other words, Joe could have gone, but he wussed out. Just like he did with my phone call.