Arpaio’s Pardon and the Insidious Relationship between Anti-Immigrant and Anti-Latinx Sentiment

Reading the news, I felt a pit in my stomach. I was struck by the physical reaction, knowing full well that with Trump’s rhetoric and proposed anti-immigrant policies, this was all par for the course. Scrolling down my Facebook feed, it was all there: President Trump Pardons Sheriff Joe Arpaio. I had not even realized this was an action the administration was planning to take – and my previous joy over the news that Arpaio was found guilty of criminal contempt was much too short-lived. Arpaio had been found criminally contempt on July 31st and less than a month later, on August 22nd, Trump hinted at pardoning the sheriff during a Phoenix rally. A few days later on August 25th, Trump officially pardoned Arpaio. If you ask me what this news means for Latinx communities across the country, it means more than I can say here, and it also feels like a punch to the gut.

Joe Arpaio rose to fame as “America’s Toughest Sheriff.” The title is a misnomer as it implies a moral rule-enforcer who keeps communities safe. Perhaps the title hints at some sort of national patriarch who is fair but also a strict disciplinarian. Based on his record, Arpaio can neither call himself fair nor moral. When Arpaio was calling himself “America’s Toughest Sheriff” a judge ruled that Arpaio and his Maricopa County Sheriff Deputies had violated Latinx civil rights by racially profiling community members and making them the targets of unlawful traffic stops (American Civil Liberties Union 2017). Ortega Melendres, et al. v. Arpaio, et al. was a class action lawsuit that pushed the courts to consider whether Arpaio’s policing tactics were racially discriminatory to Latinxs (Hassan and Simon 2017). Indeed, these tactics were. Instead of altering his practices, Arpaio carried on with racially-discriminatory policing, and was found to be in criminal contempt (Hassan and Simon 2017). When Trump pardoned Arpaio, the message could not have been clearer: find yourself guilty of racially profiling Latinxs and you can get away with it!

When the court’s racial profiling ruling was made, it confirmed what Latinxs and members of the public had been noticing for years. The abuses of racial profiling and terror inflicted on Latinx and mixed-status families had been well documented by journalists and scholars alike. For instance, sociologist Mary Romero (2011) found that Arpaio’s Chandler, AZ raids and similar immigration enforcement programs relied on physical and linguistic signifiers of “Mexican-ness” to identify and apprehend undocumented immigrants. It is in these pernicious ways that Mexicans and Mexican Americans – regardless of their citizenship status – experience racial profiling. In other words, Mexicans – and by connection other Latinxs – were automatically suspected as “illegal” immigrants. If you are one of the 16 million people in a mixed-status family, your experience of anti-immigrant sentiment is all the more intimate and potentially devastating.

I found myself learning a lot about Arpaio through my research on public officials’ support for the controversial Arizona Senate Bill 1070 (SB 1070). The 2010 immigration law had several provisions, but it was provision 2B that prompted national conversation about the so-called “Papers Please” Act. SB 1070 was considered one of the harshest state immigration policies in recent times. Critics argued that police officers would profile Latinxs in their efforts to identify and apprehend undocumented immigrants (Archibold 2010). Activists and public officials against SB 1070 posed the question: What does an illegal immigrant look like? Placing this question at the center of national debates highlighted how central racial politics are in matters of immigration. That is why if you ask me about the relationship between anti-immigrant, anti-Mexican, and anti-Latinx discourse, I will tell you that anti-immigrant and anti-Latinx sentiment often operate together and this is no accident or innocent coincidence. I will tell you that the relationship tells us as much about Latinx and immigrant communities, as it does about upholding white supremacy.

This relationship may be examined by the casual observer, but it has also been analyzed systematically. In my research, I analyze how public officials voiced their support for the contested immigration law during 2009-2012 when color-blind, coded language was still very much the norm. I found that elected officials appealed to a “white injury ideology” – a concept I borrowed from the ethnic studies scholar Lisa Marie Cacho. In order to pass and justify Senate Bill 1070, supporters positioned white Arizonans as victims of undocumented immigration and constructed Latinx immigrants as violent, economic burdens. In this discourse, amid questions of racial profiling, elected officials even constructed Latinx citizens as outside of the injured, white Arizona citizenry. In my analysis of this public discourse, it was public officials like Arpaio, for example, who insisted that they were not racist or engaging in racially discriminatory practices, but were simply enforcing the rule of law. Ultimately, I argued that social actors are able to participate in anti-Latinx sentiment because it is coded and disguised as a seemingly innocent discourse about the enforcing or respecting the rule of law. Such discourse is symbolically violent – but also has consequences for policy.

This dangerous conflation and relationship between anti-Latinx and anti-immigrant sentiment is ubiquitous in public discourse. It is also lived out in everyday life when a Latinx U.S. citizen is told to go back to their country, or when an aggressive stranger uses anti- immigrant pejorative terms to verbally attack a Latinx American. It is done in even seemingly innocent ways when a person says something about immigrants and then uses Latinx as a synonym. In the U.S. context, I sometimes wonder: is it possible for the “immigrant” to exist without conjuring the image of a Latinx person, or for “Latinx,”“Hispanic,” or “Mexican” to exist without the haunting specter of illegality? For Latinx citizens or legal immigrants, the answers do not lie in creating boundaries between us and immigrants. That will not save us. I suspect we will not be saved unless we are able to highlight the specificity of the Mexican and Latinx experience while also engaging in cross-race and intersectional analysis of how anti- immigrant discourses – and the pardoning of Arpaio – contribute to upholding white supremacy.

How do we respond to these threats moving forward? As an instructor, I find myself checking in with former students who I know are hurting in these moments. As a friend and researcher, I find myself doing more of the same. And where people will listen, we can educate them about Arpaio and his countless human rights violations and downright disgraces. In doing this work, let us not forget that alongside this pardon are other actions that condone bias and violence, such as the president’s refusal to swiftly or articulately condemn Nazis or white supremacists. Yet, none of this is surprising considering that Trump’s campaign began with a very explicit denigration of Mexicans, and a refusal to reject the support he received from white supremacists.

Alongside these threats we now know that Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) has been rescinded by the federal government. The tragic irony of the DACA news, just a short few days after the Arpaio pardon, is not lost on Latinx and immigrant communities. The president pardoned a person who is legally a criminal, but took away protection from deportation from approximately 800,000 youth in this country. In effect, the president has no moral qualms pardoning a criminal who wreaked havoc on Latinx and immigrant communities, but has no problem criminalizing youth just by nature of their continued presence in this country.

Certainly, there is much that is at stake for Latinx communities. Yet, every time I feel that familiar punch-in-the-gut feeling, there is still so much that gives me air to breathe. And where there is none, I believe we summon it, however we can. We use the tools at our disposal. As scholars, we untangle the insidious discourses that entangle immigrants and Latinx as unwanted foreigners. We use our privileges however we can, but also step back when those on the margins need to share their voice and shape movements. It was, after all, activists on the ground who tirelessly fought to bring to light the abuses Arpaio and his sheriffs were inflicting on communities. We can credit them for getting us, as a nation, to see the hypocrisy in thinking that anti-immigrant discourse does not harm Latinx communities. For this reason, this pardon does not mean that their work was in vain. Even though Trump’s message sends a resounding and clear message about how little Latinx communities matter to him, the message we give in response is one of ongoing resistance.


Photo of Mural on Wall of SPARC in Venice, CA by claumoho. CC BY 2.0

Cassaundra Rodriguez is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Currently, she is working on a book project on how members of Mexican mixed-status families – that is families that include U.S. citizens and undocumented immigrants –  experience and articulate belonging. Her research has been published in the Sociology of Race and Ethnicity, The Sociological Quarterly, and Sociology Compass.


American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU). 2017. “Ortega Melendres, et al. v. Arpaio, et al.” (

Archibold, Randal C. 2010. “Arizona Enacts Stringent Law on Immigration.” New York Times. April 23. (

Rodriguez, Cassaundra. 2017. “Fueling White Injury Ideology: Public Officials’ Racial Discourse in Support of Arizona Senate Bill 1070.” Sociology of Race and Ethnicity. 10.1177/2332649217708797

Cacho, Lisa Marie. 2000. “‘The People of California are Suffering’: The Ideology ofWhite Injury in Discourses of Immigration.” Cultural Values. 4(4): 389-418.

Hassan, Cara and Darron Simon. 2017. “Former Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio found guilty of criminal contempt.” CNN. July 31. ( guilty/index.html).

Romero, Mary. 2011. “Are Your Papers in Order: Racial Profiling, Vigilantes, and America’s Toughest Sheriff.” Harvard Latino Law Review 14(1): 337-358.

One comment

  1. Thank you for reminding us of the work of local organizers and activists in countering these injustices. Readers may also be interested to consider the impact of anti-immigrant discourse on health outcomes in the U.S. by reading (for free for next 30 days): “How Immigration Policy Impacts Health Equity. Cautious Citizenship: The Deterring Effect of Immigration Issue Salience on Health Care Use and Bureaucratic Interactions among Latino US Citizens” by
    Franciso I. Pedraza, University of California, Riverside; Vanessa Cruz Nichols, University of Michigan; Alana M. W. LeBrón, University of California, Irvine. Available at:

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