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Criminal Trial To Begin For Tough-Talking Arizona Sheriff Joe Arpaio

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For 24 years, Joe Arpaio was a tough-talking sheriff in the state of Arizona, famous for cracking down on illegal immigration. He was voted out of office in November but now faces his own legal troubles. Today, a criminal trial begins in Phoenix. The 85-year-old former sheriff is accused of ignoring a federal judge's order to ease off his crackdown. As Jude Joffe-Block reports from member station KJZZ, many in the Latino community are happy to see the tables turned on him.

JUDE JOFFE-BLOCK, BYLINE: About a decade ago, Joe Arpaio started instructing his deputies to make traffic stops and detain any unauthorized immigrants they encountered. Then they turned the immigrants over to federal agents for deportation.

LYDIA GUZMAN: These immigration raids tore our neighborhood apart.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Lydia Guzman is an activist who helped sue Arpaio over those tactics. We met at a crowded Mexican restaurant not far from where many of Arpaio's operations took place.

GUZMAN: I'm here in the heart of a Hispanic community, and I see different families with kids. I see, you know, people enjoying themselves. This is what it should've been all along, not people living in fear and trying to hide.

JOFFE-BLOCK: In 2011, a federal judge told Arpaio he could not detain immigrants just because they lacked legal status since that job is primarily for federal agents. Yet, for about 18 months, Arpaio's deputies violated the order. They kept arresting unauthorized immigrants and dropping them off with border patrol.

When the judge found out years later, he found Arpaio in civil contempt of court. Then last fall, under President Obama, the Justice Department decided to criminally prosecute Arpaio for disobeying the judge.

JACK WILENCHIK: The timing of this prosecution is problematic. It was filed only two weeks before his election.

JOFFE-BLOCK: Jack Wilenchik is one of Arpaio's lawyers. Arpaio's supporters believe this criminal case is really about politics - Democrats trying to hurt a Republican sheriff. Arpaio's fans hoped the Trump administration would drop the criminal case. But even though President Trump is friendly with Arpaio and the two see eye to eye on immigration, prosecutors are moving forward. Wilenchik says the case is hypocritical.

WILENCHIK: The federal government is prosecuting him for doing something that the federal government told him to do. Border patrol has been telling local law enforcement forever to call them if they encounter an illegal alien.

JOFFE-BLOCK: The bench trial is expected to last eight days. If Arpaio's convicted, he faces a fine or up to six months in prison. Lydia Guzman sees this as a chance to hold Arpaio accountable.

GUZMAN: His legend will be that he destroyed our community, and he got busted for it.

JOFFE-BLOCK: For NPR News, I'm Jude Joffe-Block in Phoenix.

(SOUNDBITE OF WATER FAI SONG, "TO THE GREEN TOWN") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.