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An unpardonable pardon

Despite the objections from political figures like Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, Senator John McCain and Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, President Donald Trump officially fulfilled his controversial promise to pardon America’s most infamous sheriff, Joe Arpaio. At a campaign-style rally earlier in the week, Trump had asked the roaring crowd if the sheriff was “convicted for doing his job”. For those familiar with Joe Arpaio, the obvious answer was no — that two separate judges had not ruled against Arpaio for simply doing his job, but rather, had ruled against the Sheriff because he had systematically violated the civil rights of Americans by pulling over any drivers who looked Latino and had subsequently ignored a court order to stop. Although coverage of the Arpaio pardon has been understandably superseded by other news, the message that this pardon sent is so flagrantly distasteful that it merits a close study.

Trump's pardon of Arpaio — a man at risk of going to jail for legal abuses targeted at Latinos — although perhaps demoralizing, was hardly unpredictable. On the campaign trail, candidate Trump thundered against immigrants from Mexico — “They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” — and promised to build a wall spanning the US-Mexico border to keep them out. Then, in May 2015, he claimed a federal judge would not be able to fairly rule in a fraud case against the now-defunct Trump University because the judge’s Mexican heritage would prejudice him against Trump. With the rise of the Trump presidency has come a continued increase in hostility to immigrants, both documented and undocumented. 

In reflection, Trump’s action on Arpaio was imminent and unavoidable when considering his dipping poll ratings and flurry of set-backs. The executive pardon power, uncheckable by the other branches of government, serves as a symbolic, but very real way for a president to put his or her ideology directly into action. During his eight years in office, Barack Obama commuted the prison sentences of over 1,000 non-violent drug offenders. His message was clear: jailhouses are too full for the justice department to be convicting drug dealers who would be better punished by civil penalties. Trump’s pardon message is clear, too: the suppression of civil rights is not as important as stopping the scourge of illegal immigration.

This sets a precedent that is a travesty of ethics. It normalizes the mentality that if you look Hispanic, you should be considered a criminal until you can produce papers showing otherwise. Although there is something unethical about Trump’s message, there is nothing unconstitutional about his action. The pardon power rightfully grants the president an almost unlimited ability to overturn federal cases. The only possible responses to his action for Duke students and indeed all citizens, including lawmakers, are political: criticism and sanction. If words seem like small recompense to the citizens whom Arpaio wrongfully jailed and harassed, that’s because they are. Arpaio’s victims lost their shot at justice when their country elected a president who made clear he thought their rights were worth sacrificing. Indeed, the path forward in the wake of Arpaio’s pardon is weak and uncertain. It offers no civil liberties protections for Latino citizens at risk of wrongful legal harassment and little hope that their government will look out for them. It demands that Americans at Duke and beyond, who believe that they are their brothers’ — and sisters’ — keepers, look out for their Latino community members and remind them that they are as welcome in and as much a part of this country as any other citizen.


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