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Commentary: Arizona is still paying for crazy county sheriff

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SAN DIEGO -- One of the most dangerous places to be in Arizona is caught between Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio and one of his publicity stunts. That's just where Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano finds herself.

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Months ago, Arpaio and his deputies began scouring Hispanic neighborhoods in the Phoenix area looking for illegal immigrants. So far, hundreds have been hauled away. Often in these types of operations, "probable cause" gets defined as brown skin and Spanish accents. So, there is no telling how many U.S.-born Hispanics were detained and harassed in the process.

All of which sets the stage for the stunt. The man who put inmates in pink underwear and fed them green bologna has some people in Arizona seeing red after he recently paraded about 200 illegal immigrants in shackles and prison stripes to his notorious "Tent City."

Of course, Arpaio did this after alerting the media.

The inmates are to stay in the tents until sentenced and deported. That's right. They haven't been convicted or sentenced yet. But in Maricopa County, the little things need not interfere with punishment. Arpaio touted the gesture as a "financially responsible alternative to taxpayers already overburdened by the economic drain imposed by a growing number of illegal aliens on social services like education and health care."

Malarkey. If Arpaio cared about taxpayers, he would have shown remorse after millions of tax dollars went to settle lawsuits alleging prisoner abuse in the county jail.

Arpaio normally counts the equally ambitious Maricopa County Attorney Andrew Thomas as a cohort in his shenanigans. But not this time. After Arpaio announced he would be segregating the illegal immigrants -- most of whom are Hispanic -- into a separate section of Tent City, Thomas got skittish and jumped off the Arpaio bandwagon. "Racial and ethnic segregation is unconstitutional," Thomas said.

Immigrant rights organizations see the mess in Arizona as a result of a lack of leadership in Washington.

"Without a comprehensive solution at the federal level, we have a lot of chaos," said Douglas Rivlin, director of communications at the National Immigration Forum. "And nobody is better at exploiting chaos for his own reality show than Sheriff Joe Arpaio."

The organization is asking the federal government to bar Arpaio from participating in the federal 287(g) program that allows local police agencies to enforce U.S. immigration law as long as their officers are trained to investigate if people are here illegally. The power to make that call lies with someone who is well acquainted with Arpaio: Napolitano.

As the former governor of Arizona, Napolitano is in a unique position to spell out what role, if any, local and state agencies should play in enforcing federal immigration laws. My own view is that blurring the line between jurisdictions is a terrible idea. But I want to hear what Napolitano thinks. And thanks to Arpaio, we might soon find out. The sheriff is thrusting her right into the middle of one of the most controversial and divisive issues in the immigration debate.

It serves her right. Climbing her way up the ladder to the governor's office, Napolitano was much too eager to cuddle with America's Most Ridiculous Sheriff.

The duo quarreled a bit when Napolitano took away $1.6 million in state funds slated to help Arpaio fight illegal immigration. But now that Republicans once again control the governor's office, the funding has been restored.

This means that the people of Arizona will continue to pay for Sheriff Joe Arpaio's circus act -- in more ways than one. That is, unless Napolitano finally does the right thing and shuts down the performance.

Ruben Navarrette's e-mail address is ruben.navarrette@uniontrib.com.

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