Arizona Sheriff Scandal Shows Lack of Protection for Immigrants in Same-Sex Relationships


The lead media story in the Southwest this weekend was that an Arizona sheriff who supports policies targeting immigrants had a secret relationship with a Mexican immigrant. On Presidents’ Day, the news of the relationship made it into the national media, with cable news and big-city newspapers alike covering the story.

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu—“Arizona’s Second Toughest Sheriff”—got national exposure during John McCain’s 2010 Senate campaign. Babeu, known for diverting his officers from fighting crime to more photogenic pursuits, like rounding up undocumented immigrants, had built a state-wide reputation as the next Joe Arpaio. McCain courted the Pinal County sheriff and used him in the now infamous “complete the danged fence” campaign commercial.

After that national debut, Babeu became a regular on Fox News and other conservative media outlets pushing the “deport them all” line.

Most of the coverage of the Babeu affair has centered around the themes of sexuality and politics. For example, the Arizona Capitol Times headlined its story, “Babeu Facing Long Odds After Gay Outing,” and Fox News shouted, “Gay Outing by Immigrant Lover Poses Political Problems for Arizona Sheriff.” Even CNN’s Don Lemon focused on the gay aspect of the revelation.

All of the media voices seem to miss the point.

Babeu’s “lover” did not release compromising texts and pictures from Babeu because he is gay. He did it because he believed that the sheriff was using his connections with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement to threaten him with deportation.

The man making the accusations is simply being referred to as “Jose” in the media. He is a Mexican immigrant of undetermined legal status who appears to have been in a long-term relationship with Babeu. After the relationship began to deteriorate last year, Babeu and his lawyer allegedly made comments to “Jose” implying that he faced deportation if he did not comply with Babeu’s wishes, particularly demands that he keep silent about the relationship.

At a Saturday press conference, Babeu said that he is gay but he denies ever threatening Jose.

The Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was designed to protect immigrant spouses in precisely the sort of situation that allegedly arose between Babeu and Jose. It allows the spouses of citizens (and others) to legalize their status when their spouses become abusive, and, in spite of the name of the act, it applies to male victims as well as female.

But it does not apply to same-sex couples.

When Bill Clinton and Newt Gingrich engineered the enactment of the Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, they excluded homosexuals from the protections of VAWA. So if Babeu were threatening his immigrant wife, she would receive protection under VAWA, but Jose, even if he was married to Babeu, will not.

The Violence Against Women Act was passed to prevent US citizens from leveraging their spouses’ immigration status to turn said spouses into sex slaves or punching bags. The possibility that a well-known sheriff may have used immigration authorities in an attempt to coerce Jose shows just how vulnerable gay and lesbian immigrants are under the bigotry of the Defense of Marriage Act.