This article has been updated.
PHOENIX— With Donald Trump taking the stage here before thousands of people on Saturday, he only fanned the flames of the controversy swirling around his presidential campaign by standing on the same stage as a divisive figure in the immigration debate: Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
Sheriff Joe, as he’s commonly referred to — the self-proclaimed “toughest sheriff in America” — is currently embroiled in a controversy of his own regarding immigration. A federal judge ruled in 2013 that Arpaio was unconstitutionally racially profiling Latinos. Now he faces being held in contempt of courtfor deliberately ignoring an order to stop. The long-running racial profiling case is expected to drag out through the summer. On top of it all, the 83-year-old sheriff has admitted that his attorney hired a private investigator to spy on the wife of the federal judge presiding over the case.
Under ordinary circumstances, Arpaio would be seen as a toxic surrogate for a Republican presidential campaign. But Trump’s candidacy thus far has been far from ordinary.
Several recent polls have put Trump in the top tier of the Republican presidential field, beating out long-time politicians and making it all the more likely that the billionaire real-estate mogul will earn a spot in the first GOP primary debate on August 6.
Trump has created a massive headache for the Republican Party with his anti-immigrant rhetoric. During his campaign kickoff last month, Trump called Mexican immigrants “rapists” and drug dealers, sparking a wave of condemnation from establishment Republicans and Trump’s fellow 2016 contenders. The billionaire real-estate mogul has stood by his offensive comments, and Trump predicted this week that he will win the Latino vote in 2016.
While his fellow presidential hopefuls have been campaigning across primary states, shaking hands and kissing babies, Trump has largely been able to pull off his lead in national polls without ever having to leave his lair at Trump Tower in New York City. Trump’s first major campaign trip comes nearly a month after he announced his candidacy. And judging by the campaign stops on his schedule, it’s clear Trump will continue to coast on the immigration controversy he has stirred up for the GOP.
On Friday, Trump went to Los Angeles, home to one of the most densely populated Latino communities in the U.S., only to visit Hollywood and meet with families whose loved ones have died at the hands of undocumented immigrants. On Saturday, Trump visited Las Vegas, where Latino groups claim credit for turning Nevada purple and carrying the state for President Obama both in 2008 and 2012. Trump’s last stop was Phoenix with Arpaio, the grandfather of the anti-immigration movement.
Arpaio has his own devout following of supporters who see the sheriff as a vigilante of sorts to go above and beyond enforcing immigration laws, even if the courts find his practices unconstitutional. Arpaio became a champion of Arizona’s harsh anti-immigrant laws passed in 2010 and branded himself as an outspoken voice against illegal immigration.
Officials within the Maricopa County Republican Party originally booked a hotel as Saturday’s venue, expecting a crowd of about 500. Within a few hours the event was sold out. Because of the demand the venue was moved to Phoenix’s convention center, where thousands attended Trump’s speech and lined the block around the conference center, hoping for a chance to see Trump in action.