Focus on Arpaio

A new documentary doesn't do much to make Maricopa County's terrible sheriff more likable

"In high definition on television, they can see a lot," explains Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. His new teeth, claims the lawman, cost $20,000, an expense Arpaio incurred so America could see that award-winning smile.

The country's self-proclaimed toughest sheriff is one of the subjects of Two Americans, a locally produced documentary about the illegal immigration issue and allegations of corruption in the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office that have reached a fever pitch in the past few years. In the same conversation about his new teeth, Arpaio describes the role of Dave Hendershott, then one of his top lieutenants. In 2011, Hendershott played the fall guy, fired after a probe into MCSO's affairs.

If Arpaio is tailor-made to be the antagonist, our hero in Two Americans is 9-year-old Katherine Figueroa. In 2009, Katherine's parents were arrested during one of Arpaio's infamous crime sweeps around Phoenix. Her tear-filled plea to President Obama became a YouTube hit for however long it was until the next YouTube hit, but her place in the nation's philosophy on immigration reform is an important one. Katherine was born in the U.S.; her parents weren't. And, by law, they can be deported.

The film doesn't expressly connect Arpaio's enforcement of Senate Bill 1070 to the corruption and financial irresponsibility in his office, but those two headlines occurring simultaneously is relevant to an overall theme questioning the sheriff's priorities. Is he more interested in self-promotion or enforcing the law? And is "enforcing the law" itself just code for a personal definition of justice?

Anyone who has followed the (quite literal) trials of Sheriff Arpaio over the years will already know some of the unpleasant facts presented here, including civil rights suits, vendettas against his political opponents, the misappropriation of $100 million and several wrongful death judgments stemming from prisoner abuse. One of the film's co-directors, Valeria Fernandez, has also covered the sickening practice of Maricopa County's finest shackling the legs of expectant mothers in their custody, though that isn't featured in the film.

Fernandez and Dan De Vivo received an incredible amount of access for this project, speaking with Katherine Figueroa and her parents to help present a complete timeline of the case and a look behind the scenes at a family that really doesn't know what's next. And Arpaio, as is his practice, does not shy away from their camera. In his office, while meeting with his inner circle, on immigration sweeps and at rehearsed photo ops at Walmart, the sheriff is open and frank. That doesn't make him more likable, but after watching Two Americans, you certainly won't doubt he acts as he believes.

All of this is fascinating stuff. The Figueroa's story brings up those rational questions about our broken immigration policies, reminding us there's not one single law that can make the border situation fair to everyone. Arpaio, of course, is a strangely compelling figure. But Two Americans lacks what it must lack at this time: a conclusion. The Figueroa's deportation hearing is scheduled for later this year, Arpaio was re-elected in 2012, and there's not enough data to pore over from what remains enforceable of SB 1070. Of course, real life rarely has tidy endings where everything rushes to the finish line and makes perfect sense, so you'll be left with at least as many questions as answers. But if they empower you to actually get to those answers, Two Americans will have done its job.

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