Joe Arpaio, the controversial Arizona sheriff who has declared himself America's toughest lawman, told an inmate at his Maricopa County jail "nobody is higher than me," despite U.S. attempts to get involved in his immigration enforcement policies.
The exchange, part of a PBS story on Arizona's anti-immigration law, SB 1070, took place between Arpaio, an interpreter and Guillermo Perez-Aguilar, 36, who came to the U.S. from Mexico in 1996. Perez-Aguilar was arrested and incarcerated after he failed to provide documentation proving he immigrated legally.
Perez-Aguilar, confined in the tent city where Arpaio keeps people on immigration charges, asked Arpaio what is being done to help people like him immigrate to the U.S. legally.
"It's too big for me to answer," Arpaio said. "It's something that Washington, the politicians -- the president has to do something to to take care of that."
When asked if the federal government had greater authority, Arpaio was adamant.
"No. Nobody is higher than me," Arpaio said. "I am the elected sheriff, by the people. I don't serve any governor or president. ... I serve the people."
Arpaio insisted he knows the people he polices better than the federal government.
"In the federal system, they're all bureaucrats," the sheriff continued. "I work with the federales in Mexico, I work with everybody there. I was the jefe de drogos y peligroso many years ago. So I understand the Mexican people."
He warned the inmate against attempting to return to the U.S. without proper documentation.
"I'm going to catch you again, and you're going to go to jail," Arpaio said. "We arrested, two months ago, one guy, 14 times. He must like the free airplane trip back to Mexico."
Arpaio is one of the nation's most outspoken immigration critics. In one of the more notorious moves of his two decades at sheriff, he forced inmates to wear pink underwear and handcuffs to avoid theft.
The sheriff is currently embroiled in conflict with U.S. Department of Justice investigators, who have accused Arpaio and his department of violating civil rights by discriminating against Latinos while policing. Arpaio, who refuses to overhaul his practices, faces the threat of a federal trial.
Watch the full exchange, courtesy of PBS:
Watch 'No One Is Higher Than Me,' Sheriff Arpaio Tells Inmate on PBS. See more from PBS NewsHour.