The debate and commentary about President Donald Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio, a former sheriff in Arizona, are missing the point. There’s too much speculation about whether Trump did it to cater to his base or to pay off a political debt to Arpaio, who endorsed him for president. What’s much more important is that Trump’s action shows how far he’s willing to push legal boundaries in his growing anti-immigrant crusade.

Arpaio was sheriff of Maricopa County, which includes Phoenix, from 1993 until he was defeated in 2016. During that time, he was accused of many abuses of the law, including his notorious immigration sweeps, in which his deputies cruised through the county and arrested dark-skinned people they suspected might be illegal immigrants.

To understand the implications of the Trump-Arpaio relationship, look at the case at the center of Trump’s pardon, Ortega Melendres, et al. v. Arpaio, in which the sheriff was convicted of contempt and faced a jail sentence until last week, when Trump gave him a pass.

Behind every legal case, there is a person who illustrates what the dispute is about. This one is no exception. The story of Manuel de Jesus Ortega Melendres was told in depth last year by Laura Gomez of

According to the account, Ortega Melendres was a retired elementary school teacher in Sonora, Mexico. His students called him “Professor Manuel.” He and his wife Jany had three children. He played the guitar, gave lessons and sang in a way that prompted Jany to tell Gomez, “He’s very romantic.”

In August 2007, Ortega Melendres, who liked to travel, went to Maricopa County to meet friends at the Good Shepherd of the Hills Episcopal Church in Cave Creek, northeast of Scottsdale and Phoenix. Ortega Melendres carried his passport, a tourist visa and a permit stamped with his arrival and departure date.

The church conducts an outreach program for the poor and includes a hiring hall and center for day laborers. Ortega Melendres helped out at the center and prayed at the church.

Arpaio and his deputies had started sweeps through Maricopa County in search of people they suspected might be illegal immigrants. Their definition seemed to fit anyone who was Latino.

According to a lawsuit filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, Arpaio and his deputies “launched a series of massive so-called ‘crime suppression sweeps’ that show a law enforcement agency operating well beyond the bounds of the law. …” Deputies and others recruited by Arpaio to form a volunteer anti-immigrant “posse” targeted Latinos “for investigation of immigration status, using … unfounded stops, racially motivated questioning, searches and other mistreatment, and often baseless arrests.”

One of Arpaio’s targets was the church and its day laborer center. “When Arpaio started his sweeps, my parish was his first target,” the Rev. Glen Jenks told’s Gomez. “One of the people they picked up on that first sweep was Manuel.”

According to the lawsuit, deputies stopped a pickup truck with four Latino passengers driven by a white man, saying they had been speeding. Ortega Melendres produced his documents.

The lawsuit said “… the officers pushed Ortega Melendres against a police vehicle and roughly patted him down over his entire body.” They emptied his pockets, which contained a small bottle of lotion Ortega Melendres used for dry skin. “How many times a week do you jack off?” the officer said. Ortega Melendres was then handcuffed, with his arms behind his back—a position particularly painful for him because of an improperly healed broken wrist. He and the others were put in a holding cell without being told why they were under arrest, then taken to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Phoenix. After another hour in a cell, an ICE officer looked at his documents. He was finally released, after nine hours in custody.

A federal judge ordered Arpaio to stop such practices. Arpaio defied the court. U.S. District Judge Murray Snow wrote that Arpaio and his chief deputy “have a history of obfuscation and subversion of this court’s orders that is as old as this case and did not stop after they themselves became the subjects of civil contempt.” Arpaio was convicted of criminal contempt, and Trump, in an act that shows as much contempt for the law as Arpaio demonstrated, pardoned him.

Other presidential pardons—I’m thinking of Bill Clinton’s gift to disgraced campaign contributor Marc Rich—have smelled up the White House, but none quite like this one.

This case gets to the very heart of democracy and the rights of an individual. Think of the treatment Arpaio’s goon deputies administered to Ortega Melendres—the pushing and shoving, the refusal to tell him why he was being arrested, the vile obscenity directed at him. That’s the thuggish behavior that Trump approved with his pardon.

This is the real Trump. He’s not just a rude loudmouth. Armed with the great powers of the presidency, he is a dangerous authoritarian.

Immigration arrests are going up. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials report that its officers have arrested 37.6 percent more immigrants in the first six months of this year than they did the year before. Prosecutions rose 18 percent from May to June, according to the latest compilation of the Transactional Records Access Clearinghouse, which gathers information on immigration.

The case of Ortega Melendres shows how he and thousands of other immigrants could be treated in the hands of the Great Pardoner, Donald Trump.

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