Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block have a combined total of twenty years of on-the-ground reporting of Arizona’s painful immigration battles. Both authors covered the landmark Melendres racial profiling lawsuit against Sherrif Arpaio and subsequent legal troubles for the sheriff, in addition to Donald Trump’s controversial pardon that saved him. Driving While Brown is informed by lively observations, hundreds of public records, interviews with over one hundred people, and dozens of interviews with the main characters, Joe Arpaio, and one of his chief opponents, Lydia Guzman.
Q&A with Terry Greene Sterling and Jude Joffe-Block
Tell us what inspired you to write this book, which follows how former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio became the country’s most famous immigration enforcer and the grassroots movement that organized against him?
Joffe-Block: Arpaio, as sheriff of Arizona’s most populous county, launched an unprecedented local immigration crackdown in 2007 which was emblematic of Arizona’s extreme state immigration policies. We were both intrigued by the untold story behind the landmark lawsuit Latino plaintiffs brought against Arpaio to stop his immigration-themed traffic stops that racially profiled Latino drivers and passengers.
We met in 2012 while covering the trial. Terry was reporting for magazine outlets, and I was working for public radio. As we watched the legal case continue to take unexpected twists, it felt we were witnessing history that had to be documented. Over time, the story only became bigger. Arpaio became an early supporter of President Donald Trump and then was later rescued by a Trump pardon when he was found guilty of disobeying court orders. This story — about immigration fights, civil rights and one community’s attempt to dismantle discriminatory policing — was one we thought needed to be shared.
Your book is coming out just months after Arizona, a conservative stronghold, helped elect Joe Biden president. What does Driving While Brown teach readers about this political shift?
Joffe-Block: When we first started working on this book five years ago, we did not know Arizona would wind up going blue in 2020. And yet, Driving While Brown shows how this political shift happened over time. The book explores how Arpaio and Arizona’s relentless immigration enforcement catalyzed a generation of Latino young people to become voters, activists and run for office. The grassroots organizing that emerged from that backlash was a key part of the state’s changing political landscape.
The book traces how previous decades of national immigration policies have impacted people on the ground in Maricopa County. As Biden vows to work on an immigration overhaul and reverse Trump-era policies, this book provides the context for how we got to this moment.
You followed former Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio for years as Arizona journalists and interviewed him extensively for this book. How did you get so much access to him?
Joffe-Block: One of the defining features of Arpaio’s 24-year tenure as Maricopa County sheriff, from 1993 to 2016, was his desire for media attention, and the impact that had on the policies he pursued. It is a theme that we write about at length in the book. We both had interviewed Arpaio for various journalism assignments before we began working on Driving While Brown, and the book draws from some of Terry’s interviews that go back to 2009 with him and some of mine that go back to 2013. For this book, we simply requested time with him and showed up at his events — jail press conferences, speaking engagements, the 2016 Republican National Convention, etc. We wanted to understand his perspective, motivations and hear from his supporters what kept him in power so long.
This is not a biography of Joe Arpaio, though. How would you describe this book?
Joffe-Block: This book is a portrait of a community struggling through civil rights disputes that trace back to Arizona Territory in the wake of the Mexican-American War. We interviewed people of all walks of life on all sides of the immigration debate — including people who were personally impacted by Arpaio’s enforcement policies, his loyal supporters and fierce opponents. We also explore rifts in these movements and generational divides.
We were fascinated to learn that many of the Latino community members who banded together to stop Arpaio were shaped by earlier cycles of activism, including union fights in Arizona mining towns, resistance to the Eisenhower administration’s mass deportations, and the Chicano student movement at Arizona State University in the 1960s and 70s. The battle against Arpaio that began in the mid 2000s in Maricopa County also encouraged a younger generation, and many of them are now reshaping Arizona politics.
We feel indebted to all the people who spent time with us as we researched this book. There are countless others who also shaped this history, though space restraints meant we had to focus on just a subset.
One of the Arpaio opponents you follow closely is Lydia Guzman, tell us about her.
Joffe-Block: Lydia Guzman grew up in California as the daughter of a Mexican immigrant mother and a Mexican-American father. When she was in her 20s in 1994, California voters approved Proposition 187, which sought to deny public education, non-emergency health care and other public services to unauthorized immigrants. That was a pivotal moment for Guzman, who later became a key part of a coalition fighting Arpaio by finding plaintiffs to add to the lawsuit and answering a hotline from undocumented immigrants needing help.
Like so many grassroots activists, Guzman paid a steep price for her dedication to a cause: financial troubles, losing her home to foreclosure, divorce, and for a time, a strained relationship with her kids. We wanted the book to be an honest accounting of what the personal toll of this conflict was for all involved.
Driving While Brown takes readers on a lively journey into courtrooms, living rooms, and the streets, delivering surprising and counterintuitive portraits of a powerful American sheriff, his supporters, and the people who brought him down. What were the greatest challenges in researching and writing such a readable book?
Greene Sterling: Our greatest challenges all stemmed from wrapping our arms around our hefty research. First we had to figure out an effective way to organize and share the material. Just to give you an idea, we shared all our interview and event notes, audio files, transcripts, photos, videos, newspaper clippings, and historical research. After that, we created a timeline that has upwards of 4,500 entries. Next, we winnowed the research down into chapters that tell the story through the hearts and souls of the people in the book.
One huge writing challenge centered on crafting a book that focuses on the victories, failures, sorrows, and joys of the people moving through the narrative and still delivers critically important context about policy, history, and court cases. It took five years, many, many drafts, and a great deal of thought, discussion, and compromise. But, in the end, we did it.