Dragons don't just sprout up in the desert

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

Now that President Trump has pardoned Joe Arpaio, the former sheriff of Arizona's Maricopa County, many Latinos are feeling enraged. And a lot of white liberals - in the media, academia and politics - are, as usual, acting morally superior.

But those who have shrugged off the seriousness of illegal immigration - and, in some cases, won't even use the term "illegal immigrant" - are in no position to lecture the rest of us on the sanctity of the rule of law.

Especially if they're going to sound like fools in the process.

"Donald Trump is a racist, and he's pardoning another racist," said Democratic Rep. Ruben Gallego of Arizona during an appearance on MSNBC.

That was simple. And here I thought politics was complicated.

"The Arpaio pardon is basically a big middle finger to America. A loud, proud declaration that this administration supports racism," tweeted Democratic Sen. Chris Murphy of Connecticut.

A comment that preachy makes me want to head over to Murphy's Senate office and count all the black and brown faces.

I'm an O.N.T. (Original Never Trumper) who disagrees with the pardon and would have liked for the 85-year-old lawman to be given 1,000 hours of community service in lieu of jail time.

But I still think Trump's critics could stand to be less sanctimonious, and a little more thoughtful.

Not much thought went into what Republican Sen. John McCain said in a statement criticizing Arpaio for "continuing to illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona based on their perceived immigration status."

This is the same Arizona senator who, in a desperate bid for re-election in 2010, lent his support to the state's racist immigration law. That abomination all but required local law enforcement officials like Arpaio to - as McCain so eloquently put it - illegally profile Latinos living in Arizona based on their perceived immigration status.

I've known Arpaio for 20 years. I met him when I was a reporter and metro columnist at The Arizona Republic. Back then, we agreed that local police should not enforce federal immigration law. For Arpaio, this was an unfunded mandate that used up resources, and he wanted no part of it.

I went on to graduate school, and worked for two other newspapers. Arpaio - who was, by then, already a publicity addict - went on to discover that rounding up illegal immigrants could get him on the national news. You know the rest.

I last saw him in October, a few weeks before the election. We were both speaking at a business conference in Bakersfield, California. I asked him what he made of the fact that he had been prosecuted by the same folks with whom he'd been in business.

"It's politics," he said. "It's all bull----."

I won't defend Arpaio. But why isn't the anti-Trump lynch mob eager to go after his longtime accomplices who got away with the loot?

The former sheriff's deputies rounded up thousands of illegal immigrants over several years but they didn't deport a single one. They didn't have the power. Instead, they handed them over to the most efficient deportation machine in U.S. history: The Obama administration.

Obama and Co. let Arpaio participate in the federal 287(g) program, which used local police agencies to enforce U.S. immigration law. Eventually, they made a feeble attempt to rein him in. But he outsmarted them by continuing to apprehend the undocumented, hand them to the feds, and dare them to refuse to take custody.

The administration accepted the detainees, deported them, and added them to the official tally. Those were the numbers that tough-talking Janet Napolitano, former Homeland Security secretary, bragged about when testifying before Congress.

By the way, Napolitano - who was a former governor of Arizona - also had a cozy relationship with Arpaio. At one point, the popular Republican sheriff endorsed the Democrat. That was payback. In 1997, while serving as U.S. attorney for Arizona, Napolitano undercut her boss, Attorney General Janet Reno, who had filed a lawsuit against Arpaio for allegedly violating the rights of prisoners in his jail. Napolitano - who had political ambitions - joined Arpaio at a news conference and declared the lawsuit a "technicality" and little more than "a lawyer's paper."

Retelling these stories keeps us honest. It also teaches us a few things. Like this: Sometimes the folks you think are your friends aren't even close. And this: The immigration debate isn't black and white but gray. And most of all, this: Dragons don't just sprout up one day in the desert and thrive for years unless they're fed and cared for, by all sorts of people with all kinds of motives.

Ruben Navarrette's email address is

© 2017, The Washington Post Writers Group

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