NOGALES, Ariz. — Sheriff Tony Estrada is a different kind of Arizona lawman.
Born in Nogales, Mexico, Marco Antonio Estrada was raised just north of the U.S. border, giving him a unique perspective on issues related to it and strong opinions about treatment of immigrants.
Pointedly, the white-haired, 74-year-old Spanish-speaker has said he’s “not a fan” of President Donald Trump, his proposed border wall or his hardline immigration policies.
Estrada has become an even harsher critic during the president’s first months in office as detentions of migrants away from the border have soared. Arrests by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, whose officers pick up people for deportation, surged 40 percent from the same period a year earlier.
As a lawman, Estrada said he opposes illegal immigration and has long ensured his deputies turn over to federal authorities those people they find to be in the country illegally. At the Santa Cruz County Jail he runs, immigrants who have been charged with or convicted of crimes are regularly held overnight or over the weekend for federal agencies.
But Estrada said the Obama administration treated immigrants more humanely than the current one by largely ignoring people whose violations were limited to illegal entry or re-entry into the United States, and focusing on deporting people who committed serious crimes.
“There are ways to enforce the law with more compassion,” he insisted. “And they really need to focus on the truly bad guys, more on illegal drugs.”
First elected in 1992, Estrada is in his seventh term and says he probably won’t run again. He marks 50 years in law enforcement on New Year’s Eve — half of that time with the Nogales, Arizona, Police Department, the other half as county sheriff.
Estrada was a toddler in 1944 when his mother brought him and three brothers across the border to Arizona to join their father, who had received approval to bring them into America. In subsequent decades, he said, he witnessed many other families torn apart by U.S. immigration policies.
“The cruelest thing a government can do is separate families– children from parents, wives from husbands,” Estrada said. He said it makes more sense to monitor immigrants who are living productive lives in the U.S., rather than deport them and split up relatives.
Estrada is unapologetically liberal in a state where lawmen are often known for being politically conservative, a Democrat who proudly displays in his office a photograph of presidential candidate Bernie Sanders’ March 2016 border visit. Metro Phoenix Sheriff Paul Penzone, who defeated longtime incumbent Joe Arpaio in 2016, is a Democrat, but most of Arizona’s other sheriffs are Republicans.
Fellow Arizona border Sheriff Leon N. Wilmot of Yuma County said Estrada is simply responding to his constituency, which in Santa Cruz County is more than 80 percent Hispanic.
“Every sheriff has to tailor their enforcement and policies to their community,” said Wilmot, who described Estrada as gracious and professional. “He’s an iconic border sheriff and will leave a big legacy.”
Arpaio gained national attention with his anti-immigrant policies before he lost his re-election bid in Maricopa County. “As sheriffs, we got along, even though I disagreed a lot with his policies,” Estrada said of Arpaio.
Arpaio, who became sheriff the same year Estrada did, said that despite their differences, he always respected his Santa Cruz County colleague as a “real gentleman.”
“He has a right to his opinion, and he really does know the border,” the 85-year-old Arpaio said. “Still, as a law enforcement guy, he should be thanking the president. Since Trump took office, there are a lot fewer people crossing over.”
Estrada acknowledged his views are unpopular among some, “but I only answer to my voters.”
At the international line one recent morning, Estrada greeted a Border Patrol agent then peered through the metal bars at his hometown in Mexico, noting he hadn’t traveled there in years.
He criticized Trump’s border wall idea as a waste of money, calling it “impossible” to build an effective structure with complicated geography that includes canyons and other hard-to-get-to places, and insisting “desperate people will still find a way to get across.”
“There are pockets of poverty in our own nation, and we’re thinking about building a ‘big, beautiful wall,’” Estrada said, shaking his head. “Our priorities are all screwed up.”