Jane Sanders, wife of Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders, dropped by Maricopa County’s infamous Tent City Jail on Monday with lots of questions.
But even though Sheriff Joe Arpaio himself came down to run the tour (he wouldn't miss an opportunity to parade in front of TV cameras), the only straightforward answer she managed to land was an admission that, yes, the temperature in the outdoor complex — where about 8,000 prisoners live in canvas tents — does reach 130 degrees in summertime.
“Let me put it this way,” Arpaio said. “The men and women out fighting for our country — they’re living in tents. These people are all convicted [criminals]. They’re all doing their time.”
In fact, all of Arpaio's prisoners haven't been convicted. Some are awaiting trial.
Sanders challenged whether the arrangement was humane.
“This sun,” she said. “We’re out here just for a few minutes, and it’s hard. To be in those tents."
“It’s 135 degrees in Iraq,” Arpaio quipped.
The big issue on Sanders' mind was immigration, she said.
In particular, she grilled the sheriff on his enforcement of Senate Bill 1070, the 2010 law, nicknamed the “papers please” statute, that made it a crime to violate federal immigration laws and empowered local police to check immigration status at traffic stops. At one point, Arpaio was housing immigrants snatched up under the law at Tent City.
When Sanders accused Arpaio of being “supportive of racial profiling,” the sheriff brushed her off.
“I’m not going to get into that because of legal issues,” he said.
Arpaio and his chief deputy, Jerry Sheridan, have admitted to civil contempt in federal court for violating a judge's order order forbidding the Sheriff's Office from, among other things, enforcing civil immigration law, which involved racial profiling. They and two other commanders could be referred to the U.S. Attorney's Office for possible criminal contempt charges. The judge has yet to rule in the case.
Arpaio stood back while Sanders wandered through the bunks chatting with inmates in English and Spanish, a mob of reporters and cameramen trailing behind.
Most of the inmates, dressed in gray-and-white striped scrubs and pink socks, kept the conversation generally positive.
“It has been cold at night lately,” one inmate said. When asked whether the blankets Arpaio provided were adequate, he nodded.
After the tour, Sanders met with relatives of undocumented immigrants arrested by Arpaio’s office at the headquarters of the immigrant-rights group Puente.
As the immigrants shared stories of arrests at traffic stops and struggling to navigate their way through the legal system without knowing English or having money to hire a proper lawyer, Sanders wiped away tears. Several times, she reached across the table to clasp hands with people after they shared their stories.
“When people talk about immigrants, they never see what’s behind us in our countries,” one immigrant said. “We don’t do it because we want space here. We do it because we are fleeing violence and corruption in our countries.”
Another immigrant, a young girl who identified herself as Katherine, told Sanders how her mother and father were both arrested during a raid of their workplace when she was 9 years old and spent three months in Arpaio’s jail. Worried that they would be deported and she would never see them again, she fell into a depression.
“They took away my childhood,” she said. “They took everything I had.”
Years later, she said, she still gets nervous when she sees a police officer.
“I think, what if they take my parents again? What if they leave me and my little sister alone again?” she said.
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Sanders thanked the immigrants for sharing their stories and promised: “I won’t forget them.”
“Our job as a government is not to divide families, it’s to bring them together,” she said.
The day underlined the need for comprehensive immigration reform with a path toward citizenship for undocumented immigrants who already live in the United States, she said. If her husband is elected, she said, he will work to stop deportations.
“We hope that he will be president, but he and I will be around no matter what happens," she said, "and we will be working on your behalf."