“He may have overstayed his visa and be undocumented,” Johnson said in an email to TPM. “It would be hard to say without lots more facts, however.”
Leopold said this is where the sheriff could face other legal problems.
According to US law, it’s a crime to knowingly harbor an undocumented immigrant. A strict reading of the law, Leopold said, would include some of the typical things that couples do, like driving together in a car.
Most of the time, authorities wouldn’t prosecute the boyfriend or girlfriend of someone who has problems with his or her immigration status. But in this case, Babeu is in a position of law enforcement, someone trained to know better. Moreover, he has made a career out of being a hardliner on the subject. A prosecutor and judge would likely hold the sheriff to a higher standard, Leopold said.
“I think the sheriff’s got a problem if that’s what was going on. He’s got a big problem,” Leopold said. “If they indicted him and charged him, there might be some meat to it.”
It’s possible that Babeu could say that the subject never came up or that he was fooled by his ex-boyfriend. But even that might be a hard sell, given Babeu’s expertise on immigration matters and his role as an investigator.
Plus, Leopold said, the subject almost always comes up.
“Based on my experience with families with people that don’t have documents, it comes up pretty quickly,” he said. “It’s rare that it doesn’t. And especially if you’re involved in an intimate relationship.”
Meanwhile, Arizona’s top prosecutor said he is going to investigate the possible crimes on both sides. Attorney General Tom Horne’s spokeswoman confirmed to TPM that he plans to look at the scandal.
Like Babeu, Horne is a hardliner against illegal immigration and vocal supporter of the state’s harsh immigration law, which was designed to force state and local police to have a greater role in immigration enforcement.
Horne and Babeu have also been political allies. During his 2010 run for attorney general, Horne received the sheriff’s endorsement.
Horne took up the investigation after the sheriff and top prosecutor in Arizona’s tiny Gila County refused to look into the matter. On Tuesday, Babeu had asked the Gila authorities to take the case, saying he wanted independent investigators to look into his former boyfriend as well as the allegation that the sheriff threatened to have him deported.
Babeu has accused his former lover of what he described as “legitimate crimes,” such as hacking into his campaign website and social media accounts and posting phony messages that appeared to be from the sheriff.
According to Babeu, the Gila County authorities turned down the investigation, saying they simply didn’t have the resources to tackle it.
Nick Martin is an associate editor at TPM in New York City. He came to the site in 2011 as a reporter for TPMMuckraker. Previously, he worked in Arizona, first as a staff reporter for a local newspaper and later as a freelance journalist. He also ran the news blog Heat City. Contact him: nick [at] talkingpointsmemo.com