The Wild West weirdness of the nation's immigration policy reached new extremes last week in Mesa, Ariz., a Phoenix suburb where the county sheriff, Joe Arpaio, has gone off the rails as the self-appointed scourge of people without papers.
About 2 a.m. on Thursday, Arpaio sent out a strike force of 30 detectives and 30 members of his volunteer "posse," with semiautomatic weapons and dogs, to look for illegal janitors. Acting on a tip to the sheriff's immigration hotline, they raided Mesa's City Hall. They raided the public library. They raided the local headquarters of Management Cleaning Controls, the company with the janitorial contract for city buildings.
Three janitors were arrested at the library. Thirteen other people were picked up at their homes. All are "illegals," according to the Sheriff's Office, which keeps a running total of its immigration arrests on its Web site.
In most other parts of the country this would be seen as a stunning misuse of firepower, a waste of resources and a bizarre intrusion by one government agency onto another's turf. Neither the mayor nor Mesa's Police Department had been warned about the raids. And the city had already been investigating the company's hiring.
But this happened in Maricopa County, where for months Arpaio's deputies have been staging high-profile sweeps, stopping drivers and pedestrians and demanding their papers. The crackdowns have terrorized and infuriated Hispanic residents of Phoenix, America's fifth-largest city, where citizens say they have been stopped and harassed for the crime of being brown-skinned. They have spurred lawsuits and led the Phoenix mayor and others to plead for a federal investigation.
Arpaio's crusade is unconstitutional and repugnant. But it is where the rest of the country could be headed. Immigration has vanished from the presidential race, but its problems are still with us, distorted by opportunists and poisoned by fear.
The system has too few visas, too many shadow workers and no way to bring a huge and vital undocumented labor force into compliance with the law.
The new president will not only have to stand up for something better; he will have to stand against the repulsive scapegoating that hard-liners like Arpaio, who is up for re-election next month, have waged for short-term political gain.