Would Joe Arpaio Wash Your Feet?
Anybody who has passed through Phoenix for more than a day sometime during the last two decades has heard of Sheriff Joe. He is the guy who makes prisoners wear pink underwear, don Hamburglar themed black and white jump suits, eat green bologna, and live in tents in the middle of a 115 degree deserts. He is also the guy who calls two or three press conferences a week to congratulate himself on standing up to some bleeding heart liberal foil and then runs off to film his new reality TV show for Fox Reality Channel called “Smile…You’re Under Arrest!” Apparently, Fox believes that American audiences are clamoring for a reality show mash up of “Punk’D,” “COPS,” and “To Catch a Predator,” where Arpaio plays both an Ashton Kutcher style practical joker and creepy old guy showing up at other people’s homes. When he is not filming or press conferencing you can catch Joe Arpaio in court, not for the prosecution, but in his own defense, fending off lawsuits for everything from wrongful death to racial profiling. National audiences might also recognize the Sheriff as that old white guy with glasses and a comb-over who appears regularly on Lou Dobbs to commiserate with the CNN anchor’s rants about the ravages of illegal immigration or debate Al Sharpton.
His unwavering belief that “illegals” are responsible for the majority of violent crime in Maricopa County has fueled his popularity in a city known for strong anti-immigrant sentiments, allowing him to be elected five times since 1992, parlaying a County Sheriff position into a Robert Moses like reign of terror/power in Arizona politics. These convictions also guide his monthly “crime suppression sweeps.” For those unfamiliar with this practice, apparently the best way to suppress crime in Maricopa County is to set up roadblocks on “county islands” within the boundaries of independent cities in order to stop Latino drivers with faulty tail lights and request proof of citizenship. Regardless of their legal situation, many Hispanic residents of the valley live in fear of the Sheriff’s Deputies, their gun toting “posse” of citizens, and getting arrested for driving while being brown without a passport. Ok, this is admittedly rhetorical, but careful studies have shown an inordinate number of Hispanics being arrested after routine traffic stops in cities with very low Latino populations. Meanwhile, violent crime still spirals out of control under the diligent watch of “America’s Toughest Sheriff.”
Fortunately, Sheriff Joe’s incessant quest for attention has led many outside groups to pay increasing notice to his antics. For instance, Sojourners Ministries rallied Christians to protest against his excesses and blatant discrimination, calling for federal intervention. Together with Latino community organizations, they rejoiced when the Justice Department initiated an official investigation into civil rights violations and racial profiling under Arpaio. And, Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agents are beginning to refuse to cooperate with Arpaio’s “crime suppression sweeps.” Just last week Arpaio called another news conference to complain that he had to let nine undocumented workers go because of new federal rules and uncooperative agents. He went on to play audio tapes that he secretly recorded of ICE agents’ conversations with his deputies, which has further spoiled their working relationship.
On the other side, The Arizona Republic continues to report stories of families being separated through deportation. Whatever your stance on legal and illegal immigration, these tragic tales of separated families can be heartbreaking. In one case, a California woman, who was traveling through Arizona with her truck driver husband, fled to a domestic abuse shelter after a fight with her spouse. Instead of refuge she found Sheriff’s deputies, who swiftly deported her to Nogales, Mexico without blinking at the fact that she was seeking protection, her three children were U. S. citizens, and she had lived in the U.S. for 21 years.
This is not a simple issue, and we will be having a more extensive conversation about Christian responses to immigration and enforcement in the coming weeks, offering diverse perspectives on biblical values, national laws, and human rights. In the mean time, people like Pancho Olachea Martin present one response to this issue that is indisputably Christ-like. The Republic reports how Olachea Martin, himself deported to Nogales after 32 years of living in the U.S. and working in elderly care, spends his days tending to the most basic needs of fellow migrants. The middle-aged man cleans buses in the border city for a scant wage most days. Then, he saves what he can in order to buy first aid supplies, food, and clothes. With these humble provisions he feeds, clothes, and cleans the wounds of weary migrants.
Asked why he would spend his only money on antiseptic and bandages for strangers instead of trying to save to pay his own way back to the U.S., Olachea Martin simply replied, “When I see these feet, I see the feet of Jesus Christ.” In summary, the article calls Olachea Martin a good Samaritan, caring for those whom others pass without a second glance. But his simple calling to wash the feet of fellow deportees also reminds us of Mary, who anointed her Savior’s feet with fine oils and gently cleaned them with her tears and hair (John 12). Or, we may think of Jesus himself, who just one chapter later (John 13) taught his disciples that if anyone would follow him, they must love and serve others. Christ demonstrated that teaching by washing the feet of his followers.
Too often the harsh realities of immigration and poignant responses of men like Olachea Martin are drowned out by cable news talking heads and “celebreality” chasing politicians like Arpaio. And, I don’t imagine that Fox, CNN, or Lou Dobbs will be calling up the middle aged Mexican immigrant for an appearance any time soon. Sheriff Joe continues to chase the cameras, recently gloating that thanks to his appearances and his TV show probably nobody will not know who he is. While universal recognition is a dubious claim, there is no doubt that the man’s profile is on the rise. All the while, I suspect Olachea Martin performs his job for an audience and approval rating of one, content knowing that his savior sees him and gives him the title “buen siervo y fiel.”