Pinal Protest

Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, left, talks with Frank Pierson, a 35-year resident of Oracle who led a group of supporters of Central American children who were to have been bused to a private facility in Pinal County.

Ron Medvescek / Arizona Daily Star

You don’t have to concern yourself with Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu‘s personal life to grasp that he has a love-hate relationship with illegal immigrants.

Babeu, as you may know, has made a national name for himself over the last four years by taking a hard line against border insecurity and illegal immigration.

What’s less well-understood is that border crises are the lifeblood of Babeu’s political career. Without them, his hopes for the next, bigger office wither.

To grasp that, ask yourself where he has been since 2012, when the revelation of his romance with an illegal immigrant helped end his quest for a congressional seat. The border crisis diminished, and so did Babeu’s political prominence.

This dynamic goes a long way toward explaining why two groups of protesters and a posse of reporters, deputies and “militia” members gathered in and near Oracle Tuesday morning. I joined them for a couple of hours.

During the current illegal-migrant wave, groups of Central Americans have been detained in Nogales, Tucson and other places in Arizona, but only when they were scheduled to arrive in Pinal County did a protest erupt. This is not a coincidence.

Babeu learned last week of the scheduled use of the Sycamore Canyon Academy south of Oracle in the Catalinas as a place to detain juvenile Central American migrants. He promptly informed the citizens of Pinal County, taking special pains to alert Oracle resident Robert Skiba.

Skiba was one of Babeu’s early financial supporters in 2008, when the upstart Republican Babeu challenged Democratic hegemony in Pinal County offices and won. Told by Babeu when and where to expect buses carrying 40 or 50 Central American minors, Skiba took the initiative and got the protest rolling.

After he announced the protest, and even after protesters declared their plans to block the buses from going up Mount Lemmon Road to the academy, Babeu presented himself as the law-and-order man who would keep the peace. He handed protesters fliers on the Constitution Tuesday morning. He acted as if he was simply responding to the protests when he was actually their creator.

“Our job here today is to provide the First Amendment freedoms of speech, the right to assembly and to protest. I’m doing that for everybody who is here, as long as they’re not violating the law,” Babeu said Tuesday morning.

This sleight of hand is nothing new for Babeu. His political career is built on a double game: He uses border and immigration issues to arouse the passions of hard-right conservatives while at the same time building strong relationships with the GOP establishment. He gave primary-election endorsements to John McCain in 2010, Mitt Romney in 2012 and Andy Tobin for Congress this year, all of whom were the establishment Republican favorites.

The double game can also be seen in his relationship with the self-appointed “militias” who occasionally show up at border-related events. Babeu’s repeated denunciations of smuggling activity in the Vekol Valley of western Pinal County in 2010 prompted neo-Nazi J.T. Ready to begin independent patrols of the valley with a heavily armed group of fellow travelers.

Babeu’s response was to issue a tepid statement discouraging Ready and Co. “I do not ask or encourage them to come here,” it read, going on to say: “It will only complicate our concerns to have untrained and armed citizens, who are not from Pinal County, patrolling our desert areas.”

What kind of person had Babeu inspired? Two years later, Ready massacred his ex-girlfriend and three family members in Gilbert before killing himself.

On Tuesday, members of the self-anointed Arizona Citizens Militia taped off a perhaps 75-foot stretch of the shoulder of Mount Lemmon Highway. Looking official in tan-and-black uniforms with dark sunglasses, and wearing communications radios in their ears, the men told me they were saving the space for a VIP to arrive later in the day. Pinal County deputies did not interfere with their seizure of public land or discourage them in any way.

These are the dangerous forces Babeu unleashes when he whips up anti-illegal-immigration fever. But necessity clearly demands that he do it. The new political action committee he has launched, Paul Babeu for Arizona, raised a relatively small $26,385 between Jan. 1 and May 31 this year, $15,000 of it from three individual donors who gave $5,000 apiece. He’s also supporting a gubernatorial candidate, Christine Jones, who could well name Babeu the state’s director of public safety if elected. They need this wave of anger.

Babeu adviser Sean McCaffrey, a one-time state GOP director who now works in Texas, explained a relevant principal in political fundraising in an online blog post earlier this year, and I think it helps explains the whole Oracle circus on Tuesday.

Over the years he’d discovered a universal rule of fundraising by mail, he wrote: “To get donors to give the most and the most often you either needed to really scare them, or really piss them off,” McCaffrey wrote on the Beast Digital web site. “Fear and loathing of the unknowable or unthinkable remains a powerful motivator.”

For a couple of years, Babeu has needed to revive his beloved old nemesis, border-crossing illegal immigrants. A simple planned transfer of detainees to a site just inside the Pinal County line let him do it, as I’m sure his next campaign-finance report will show.

Contact columnist Tim Steller at or 807-7789. On Twitter: @senyorreporter