Phoenix Mayor Challenges Popular Sheriff’s Anti-Immigration Tactics

By Rebecca Spence

Published July 24, 2008, issue of August 01, 2008.
  • Print
  • Share Share

Phoenix — At first glance, Mayor Phil Gordon’s office in downtown Phoenix looks like that of any other mayor, replete with photos of his kids and a sweeping view of the city. In the case of Arizona’s capital, that means rolling desert hills. But in an otherwise sparsely decorated workspace, one detail stands out: a silver tray of Israeli shekels atop the coffee table.

PHIL GORDON: ‘This country was built on immigration.’
PHIL GORDON: ‘This country was built on immigration.’

Gordon is the first Jewish mayor of Phoenix, one of America’s fastest-growing cities. A popular leader serving his second term, Gordon has spoken out on behalf of Israel more than most local elected officials. He even penned an opinion article on the threat of Iran, in which he urged other local politicians to take a stand. But he also has taken a vocal position on an issue that is less of his choosing and more a product of his city’s circumstance: how to handle illegal immigration.

That led Gordon to travel last year to Washington to lobby for comprehensive immigration reform after an immigration reform bill co-authored by Arizona senator and presumptive Republican presidential nominee John McCain failed to pass. Gordon, a Democrat, endorsed McCain in the presidential primary, though he now says that in the general election he is remaining neutral.

Gordon’s endorsement of the senator had, by all appearances, less to do with policy than with friendship and loyalty — traits Gordon said he learned from his Jewish grandfather, a Lithuanian immigrant.

Gordon, 57, leads a city increasingly at the nexus of the debate over how to handle undocumented workers who pour across the border with Mexico. In recent months, that debate has intensified in Phoenix, as the Maricopa County sheriff, Joe Arpaio, has taken extreme measures to round up and deport illegal immigrants. Gordon, along with local Jewish groups, has made decrying the sheriff’s strong-armed tactics — which, according to news reports, have included forcing arrested illegal immigrants to wear pink underwear and eat rotten green bologna sandwiches — a top priority.

“The mayor is the only high-level politician in Arizona who stood up against the sheriff,” said Rabbi Maynard Bell, executive director of the Arizona chapter of the American Jewish Committee. “Suddenly the sheriff is no longer a sacred cow anymore, and I think it took the mayor’s courage to do that.”

Since last January, the sheriff has been conducting what he calls “crime suppression sweeps,” in which he and a posse of volunteer deputies show up in predominantly Hispanic neighborhoods, stop residents for minor traffic violations and then question them about their immigration status. A recent “sweep” here rounded up 27 Hispanics who the sheriff believes may be in the country illegally. The “sweeps” are often accompanied by rowdy anti-immigrant rallies, as well as counter-protests.

In an interview at his City Hall office, Gordon pointed to a sign that had been held at one of the rallies accompanying an Arpaio “sweep.” The sign, rendered in scrawled handwriting, read “Hooray for slaughtering of illegals, Boo to the beaners!,” with a swastika drawn at the bottom.

The mayor, a former lawyer, holds that the sheriff’s actions are tantamount to racial profiling and represent a violation of civil rights. He first spoke out against the sheriff’s tactics in late March, at the seventh annual Cesar Chavez Day luncheon here. That same week, he sent a letter to U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey asking for a federal investigation into Arpaio’s tactics. (As of yet, there has been no word on the status of that request.)

A spokesman for Arpaio did not return a call seeking comment.

Gordon’s criticism of the sheriff has not been welcome in all corners of the Phoenix Jewish community. Amy Laff, founding chairwoman of the Arizona chapter of the Republican Jewish Coalition, said in an e-mail that “the mayor should not engage in undermining legitimate enforcement efforts by the County Sheriff by, for example, requesting an FBI investigation into the Sheriff’s Department immigration enforcement activities.”

And Arpaio is a highly popular figure among the Arizona electorate. An Arizona State University poll conducted in late April showed a 59% approval rating for the Maricopa County sheriff. Gordon, on the other hand, had only a 42% approval rating.

But Gordon, who first took office in 2004 and was re-elected last September with nearly 80% of the vote, said that he spoke against Arpaio because it was the right thing to do.

“Certainly standing up to the sheriff isn’t the wisest thing to do politically, but it was the right thing to do ethically and morally,” Gordon said. “I personally regret that I didn’t do it earlier.”

Find us on Facebook!
  • Ari Folman's new movie 'The Congress' is a brilliant spectacle, an exhilarating visual extravaganza and a slapdash thought experiment. It's also unlike anything Forward critic Ezra Glinter has ever seen.
  • The eggplant is beloved in Israel. So why do Americans keep giving it a bad rap? With this new recipe, Vered Guttman sets out to defend the honor of her favorite vegetable.
  • “KlezKamp has always been a crazy quilt of gay and straight, religious and nonreligious, Jewish and gentile.” Why is the klezmer festival shutting down now?
  • “You can plagiarize the Bible, can’t you?” Jill Sobule says when asked how she went about writing the lyrics for a new 'Yentl' adaptation. “A couple of the songs I completely stole." Share this with the theater-lovers in your life!
  • Will Americans who served in the Israeli army during the Gaza operation face war crimes charges when they get back home?
  • Talk about a fashion faux pas. What was Zara thinking with the concentration camp look?
  • “The Black community was resistant to the Jewish community coming into the neighborhood — at first.” Watch this video about how a group of gardeners is rebuilding trust between African-Americans and Jews in Detroit.
  • "I am a Jewish woman married to a non-Jewish man who was raised Catholic, but now considers himself a “common-law Jew.” We are raising our two young children as Jews. My husband's parents are still semi-practicing Catholics. When we go over to either of their homes, they bow their heads, often hold hands, and say grace before meals. This is an especially awkward time for me, as I'm uncomfortable participating in a non-Jewish religious ritual, but don't want his family to think I'm ungrateful. It's becoming especially vexing to me now that my oldest son is 7. What's the best way to handle this situation?" What would you do?
  • Maybe he was trying to give her a "schtickle of fluoride"...
  • It's all fun, fun, fun, until her dad takes the T-Bird away for Shabbos.
  • "Like many Jewish people around the world, I observed Shabbat this weekend. I didn’t light candles or recite Hebrew prayers; I didn’t eat challah or matzoh ball soup or brisket. I spent my Shabbat marching for justice for Eric Garner of Staten Island, Michael Brown of Ferguson, and all victims of police brutality."
  • Happy #NationalDogDay! To celebrate, here's a little something from our archives:
  • A Jewish couple was attacked on Monday night in New York City's Upper East Side. According to police, the attackers flew Palestinian flags.
  • "If the only thing viewers knew about the Jews was what they saw on The Simpsons they — and we — would be well served." What's your favorite Simpsons' moment?
  • "One uncle of mine said, 'I came to America after World War II and I hitchhiked.' And Robin said, 'I waited until there was a 747 and a kosher meal.'" Watch Billy Crystal's moving tribute to Robin Williams at last night's #Emmys:
  • from-cache

Would you like to receive updates about new stories?

We will not share your e-mail address or other personal information.

Already subscribed? Manage your subscription.