On August 25th, 2017 President Trump’s first presidential pardon went to a wildly controversial former sheriff from Arizona, Joe Arpaio. The White House granted a “full and unconditional pardon” to Arpaio, a man who once called his own jails and prisons “concentration camps.” A White House statement is effusive describing him as a “worthy candidate for presidential pardon” who “exemplify[ies] selfless public service.”.

Who is Joe Arpaio?

In his 24 years as sheriff of Maricopa County, where Phoenix is located, Arpaio took on a deliberate assault of the county’s Latinx population through systemic abuse of civil rights and racial profiling.  Arpaio relished media attention and billed himself as ‘America’s toughest sheriff.’  He became infamous for brutalist tactics that included blatant racial discrimination and “sadistic punishments” including, but not limited to “torture, humiliation, and degradation,” with a particular focus on immigrants and people of color.

In July, courts found that evidence showed a “flagrant disregard” for a 2011 court order that ordered his police department to stop systemic abuse of civil rights and racial profiling. As a result, he was convicted of criminal contempt, which carries a possible maximum sentence of 6 months in jail, and a monetary fine.

Unlawful search and seizures, discriminatory conduct, and failure to provide basic services to people with limited English were a regular occurrence during his tenure. His own colleagues claim that he violated the constitution “almost on a daily bases” and have gone so far as to call his rule a “reign of terror.”  Arpaio was finally voted out of office in 2016, but the ramifications of such a morally bankrupt presidential pardon by President Donald Trump will long be felt, here are some of them.

What are the ramifications?

It sends a clear message to other US Sheriffs that they too can violate the rule of law. Joe Arpaio violated the constitutional rights of both citizens and residents of the United States by detaining them merely by virtue of their race, and he was then absolved of all legal responsibility for these actions. With this pardon Trump sends a message that civil rights don’t matter, particularly if you are going after immigrants and people of color.

It shows that Trump could undermine the investigation of his campaign’s contacts with Russia.  This pardon signals a potential that Trump will use these tactics to absolve associates being investigated in the probe of possible collusion between Trump’s campaign and the Russian government. Many top Trump associates have come under scrutiny in the FBI’s investigation into Russian Interference in the 2016 presidential election. Trump’s pardon signals to those being investigated for colluding with Russian officials that they can be pardoned if they refuse to cooperate with the investigation. Though this would come at a high political cost, some legal experts worry that the President could render Special Counsel Muller’s central enforcement mechanism in the Russia probe moot.

It condones racism, and validates white supremacy. In the wake of an overdue and underwhelming rebuke to far-right violence in Charlottesville, Donald Trump used his powers to grant full pardon to the embodiment of white supremacy. Joe Arpaio once mused he thought it was an “honor” to be compared to the KKK. By pardoning this man, Donald Trump has yet again nodded to the fringe of his base while at the same time telling immigrants and people of color” Your rights don’t matter.

It subverts the constitution and rule of law.

Trump’s pardon of Arpaio is not only morally bankrupt, but legally questionable.  This pardon tests the boundaries of his constitutional authority. Trump used his constitutional power to pardon somebody for what a judge found to be a violation of the constitution. Activists have argued that Trump cannot prevent a court’s powers to enforce its orders when the constitutional rights of others are at stake, mounting their legal challenge to this pardon in court.

What can you do?

Check in with your community. Check in with the folks in your community being targeted by the kind of racist policies that Arpaio promoted. Racism and bigotry are present in local police departments, city councils, and mayoral offices all across the country. Identify and fight against these practices in your local government, especially now that thousands of undocumented young people will be at risk.

Ask the hard questions. What is your community doing to protect immigrants from harassment by police departments that are meant to protect them? Is this really keeping our communities safe? Focus on how your community is protecting undocumented immigrants, particularly whether it has sanctuary policies in place to ensure police in your communities aren’t targeting immigrants.

Make your voice heard. Call your representatives, write letters, organize and make your voice heard! Several pieces of legislation that protect undocumented youth including the bipartisan DREAM  Act of 2017 have already been introduced this legislative cycle. This would give roughly 1 million young DREAMers permanent legal status and a pathway to citizenship.


Trump’s very first use of his powers to grant clemency were for a man who has detained people for no legal reason, and used his power to systematically abuse civil rights. As the nation processes the meaning of a series of callous actions by President Donald Trump including dubious condemnations to far-right violence in Charlottesville, the full pardon of an unhinged vigilante sheriff, and the repeal of Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), what is clear is that in under 30 days Donald Trump has once again failed a succession critical tests of moral leadership in his office. Now more than ever it is crucial to fight the polarizing voices that divide our nation capitalizing on hate and bigotry. Day by day it becomes clear that Donald Trump would rather appease his base than combat the toxic ideology at its fringe. The lack of moral leadership in the White House means that we must stand as leaders in our own communities and call on those that represent us to very clearly condemn racism, white nationalism and white supremacy.