After the news breaks of the scandal around Arizona sheriff and border security hawk Paul Babeu, I think for sure that he will cancel the February 23 posse recruitment meeting in the San Tan Valley near Phoenix.
The national news on Babeu of course is not about his attempt to bolster the Pinal Country Sheriff’s Office posse, rather it comes from the February 16 article published by the Phoenix New Times which says that the hard-line Pinal County sheriff threatened his ex-lover, Mexican Jose Orozco (who also did work for Babeu by managing his campaign websites), with deportation. The next day Babeu admits that he is gay, but denies all other charges against him. The lengthy legal battle could derail the sheriff’s campaign for the 4th congressional district in western Arizona, in which he is campaigning on his national reputation as a staunch immigration-enforcer.
The last thing, I think, that the rising (or formerly rising, according to some analysts) GOP star will want is a community meeting with his grumpy conservative constituency, where he will be exposed to a media that will be quick to jump on the scandalized sheriff. When I call, though, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Department inform me that they haven’t received any notification of a cancellation. So, I begin my three hour drive north to Pinal county which is located right between Tucson’s Pima and Phoenix’s Maricopa counties.
A posse program for a Sheriff who is unyielding on immigration enforcement is loaded. Pinal County has a 287 (g) agreement with the federal government which allows police agents, under proper training, to enforce immigration law. In a February 6 interview with KPHO, Phoenix’s CBS affiliate, Pinal posse member Dennis Hixon tells reporter Elizabeth Erwin that of the arrests he participates in, unauthorized migrants “make up a decent number of his backseat guests.” Although the posse does other policing activities, the attempt to deputize an unpaid armed civilian police force, which could in certain important ways serve as defacto Border Patrol agents, seems like a big deal, especially now with the sheriff caught up in so much controversy.
The word “posse” has a long history in Arizona. On one hand it is as KPHO’s Erwin explains to her viewership: “Back in the day, sheriffs would round up their posse to catch the bad guys.” The bad guys, however, might be, as one example, the striking miners in Bisbee, Arizona, where in 1917 a 2,200 strong posse (under Sheriff Harry Wheeler) swept through town detaining and then deporting 1,200 workers (mainly Mexican, but also of other ethnicities), who were loaded into 23 box cars on a Phelps Dodge train and shipped to Mexico. If Babeu did indeed threaten Orozco with deportation, it follows a long history of similar actions from other sheriffs.
But unlike the wild-west ruffians depicted by wild-west americana, the posse recruitment in Pinal County will not come from rural areas as I first mistakenly suspect. Babeu’s aim, at least this night, is sprawling suburban Phoenix, which has spilled over into Pinal County to the tune of 80,000 (mainly white) people. Frankly, at first I am surprised when I enter the San Tan Valley and am engulfed in its endless subdivisions and corporate chain development. I later learn that it is one of the fastest growing places in the United States, having sprung up from the wild Sonoran desert in a mere 10 years. The feeling of the valley is of typical U.S. suburbia, which could be anywhere— nothing wild nor west about it. Also, if the people at the posse-recruitment meeting are any indication, plenty of retirees have also settled the area from the east coast and mid-west, as goes the Phoenix trend. All seven or eight men of the modern-day posse present at the recruitment meeting are, without exception, white and senior citizens.
Babeu is charismatic. He takes the mike with a raspy voice, probably due to all the press conferences, and doesn’t mention the Orozco case at all. He talks about how important the posses are to law-enforcement in Pinal County and interacts with the audience with a sense of both charm and humor. There is plenty of laughter to his jokes. At one point he begins to ask individuals how long they have been living in the San Tan Valley— and where they are from— to prove the point of its rapid expansion. He walks around the room asking everyone and I become afraid he is going to ask me too. I’m not sure if I’m correct, but for some reason I feel like I’ve infiltrated a community meeting. But I get lucky, and he doesn't ask. There is no media presence with questions about the scandal. Instead everyone who speaks stresses how much they support the sheriff, without question. This is always met with applause.
All of the posse members stand to the side of the room stoically as Babeu talks. They all carry a Glock on their hip in a holster. One of the first things Babeu mentions, as if to stress that youth too can be involved in some way with the Sheriff’s office and posse, is Pinal County’s youth Explorers program which “is the largest . . . in Arizona.” This program, done through the Boy Scouts of America, connects youth with law enforcement, not only where they learn “paramilitary and law enforcement tactics,” Babeu explains, but it's also a "leadership role“ invoking lessons "of discipline and respect that we want to teach the youth in our area.” Several people raise their hands when Babeu asks if anyone has grandchildren, children, nieces, or nephews in the 14-21 year age bracket.
This thrust in posse recruitment also neatly coincides with a new Arizona state initiative, known as Senate Bill 2083, to form a volunteer border militia— the Arizona Special Units Mission. This unit has the purpose “of securing the safety and protection of the lives and property of the citizens of this state,” by helping authorities arrest those involved in “cross-border criminal activity.” Like posse members, the individuals would receive training beforehand. SB 1083 is still in its early stages, and will need state congressional approval. It seems to be built upon the posse model used not only by Babeu, but other Arizona sheriffs, including its most famous— Joe Arpaio.
In Arizona, with a little training (and $1200 for your weapons and equipment if you are a Pinal County posse member), anyone can become a defacto Border Patrol agent— from youth to senior citizens. This dynamic was never controversial for Babeu, in fact this is what brought him the national stage that probably spurred his congressional campaign. Babeu the sheriff threatens deportation on many levels: along with the singular and personal threat to Orozco, he threatens a wide-spread deportation dragnet, in which a web of volunteer citizen-agents will play a key role, with at least some similarities to Wheeler’s massive deportation in Bisbee in 1917. Perhaps this is no problem under the deportation machine that has become even more well-honed under the Obama administration, that ultimately upholds, if not encourages, such behavior. I drive away from the San Tan Valley fast, wondering if we were becoming a nation of Border Patrol agents, and if this too were scandalous.
For more from the Border Wars blog, visit nacla.org/blog/border-wars. And now you can follow it on twitter@NACLABorderWars. See also "Undocumented, Not Illegal: Beyond the Rhetoric of Immigration Coverage," by Angelica Rubio in the November/December 2011 NACLA Report; "The Border: Funneling Migrants to Their Doom," by Óscar Martínez, in the September/October 2011 NACLA Report; and the May/June 2007 NACLA Report, Of Migrants & Minutemen.