A section of border fence divides Santa Cruz County, Arizona, from Nogales, Mexico. Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada opposes SB 1070. Photo by Nick DeSantis

TUCSON, Ariz. — Jim Sharpe doesn’t like to play the role of ranting radio host at 5 a.m. He says it’s too early to be an “angry white dude.”

But on July 7 – the day after the Department of Justice sued Arizona, seeking an injunction against SB 1070, the state’s controversial immigration law – he couldn’t help himself.

“I was on the air talking about how hurt I was,” said Sharpe, a personality on KFYI-AM in Phoenix. “It felt like the beginning of a boxing match, when you’re trying to size up what your opponent can do and he punches you hard in the nose.”

Sharpe decided to punch back.

When a caller suggested filing a countersuit against the federal government, he took the idea to a group of local attorneys, who hatched a plan to defend SB 1070 in court.

A week later, Sharpe joined forces with Cochise County Sheriff Larry Dever, Pinal County Sheriff Paul Babeu, and former Republican gubernatorial candidate Buz Mills to form Border Sheriffs, an organization that raises legal defense funds for Dever and Babeu.

Since its launch, Border Sheriffs has aggressively criticized the federal government for not doing more to enforce existing immigration laws. But the group’s opponents argue that the sheriffs are engaging in an opportunistic campaign to raise their own profiles at the expense of immigrants.

Three months after their organization’s founding, Dever and Babeu find themselves caught in the center of two contentious legal battles.

The first lawsuit, filed by the American Civil Liberties Union, named all of Arizona’s sheriffs as defendants. The complaint attempted to block SB 1070 on constitutional grounds.

The second, filed by the DOJ, argued that SB 1070 usurped the federal government’s power to regulate immigration. On July 28, Judge Susan Bolton agreed, and issued a preliminary injunction against the most controversial parts of the law.

After Bolton’s ruling, Dever’s new attorneys sprang into action, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals cleared him to join the fight against the injunction.

Dever, 59, a 30-year veteran of Cochise County law enforcement, united with Border Sheriffs because he believes SB 1070 is a much-needed deterrent against illegal immigration.

He knows he doesn’t have all of the time and resources needed to solve Arizona’s immigration problem, but he’s not satisfied with federal efforts, either.

“The federal government has been very slow to address the crime and the disruption of quality of life in Cochise County,” he said. “So we’ll do what’s necessary.”

He also accused Democrats of using the immigration debate for leverage at the polls. The Department of Homeland Security refuses to enforce immigration laws because the agency sees political gain in catering to the immigrant community, he said.

“It’s purely political, since most people in power are Democrats,” Dever said. “They just want the electoral support of a certain voting mass.”

Sharpe echoed Dever’s accusation, and said that politicians on the left view the immigrant population as “undocumented Democrats.”

Critics of Border Sheriffs allege that the group is defending a flawed law using dubious tactics. Dan Pochoda, legal director of the ACLU of Arizona, pointed out that Dever and Babeu were named in the ACLU lawsuit only as a formality, and did not have to pay their own legal fees. He called the defense fund launched on their behalf “unnecessary.”

“They’re not being sued personally,” he said. “They’re just trying to raise money for the sake of raising money and raising their profile.”

Dever responded to Pochoda’s criticism by saying he sought private funding and representation to reduce the burden on Cochise County taxpayers, who cannot afford a protracted legal fight with the ACLU.

Ed Rheinheimer, the Cochise County Attorney, corroborated Dever’s claim.

“We didn’t have the resources to provide him with the representation he wanted,” said Rheinheimer, who approved the sheriff’s request for private counsel. “He’s the only border sheriff taking such an active role, and he has a perspective that might be useful for the court to hear.”

In addition to fielding criticisms from the ACLU, Dever and Babeu are feeling heat from some of their colleagues in law enforcement. Santa Cruz County Sheriff Tony Estrada opposes the law, and as a result was never asked to join the defense fund.

Estrada is as suspicious of his colleagues’ political ambitions as they are of the Democrats’.

“SB 1070 is a bad law done for the wrong reasons,” he said. “It’s a political football, and I’m not going to say that some people are taking advantage of the attention, but they’re riding the wave.”

Estrada also took issue with Border Sheriffs’ willingness to associate illegal immigrants with criminality. Supporters of SB 1070 use immigrants as scapegoats for bigger economic problems, he said.

“Do you really think these people are going to trek through the desert for days, facing the risks from human and animal predators, just to come here and commit crimes?,” he asked.

Brian Bergin, Dever’s attorney in both lawsuits, maintained that Dever possesses unique expertise on immigration issues. He emphasized that Arizona’s sheriffs are public servants and professionals who enforce the state’s laws fairly.

“I really don’t think 1070 is the boogeyman its opponents make it out to be,” he said. “What we’re after is sensible, parallel enforcement, and a means to bring the current situation into harmony with federal law.”

So far, the Border Sheriffs’ efforts to solicit donations have produced mixed results; Sen. John McCain contributed $5,000 to their efforts on July 16, but a recent $100,000 challenge grant issued by a Colorado volunteer went unmatched as of Oct. 15.

Dever declared that the group’s ultimate goal is to force politicians to take a public stand on illegal immigration.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re a senator, or a congressman, or another sheriff — you can’t sit back and be quiet,” he said. “As this case goes forward, people won’t be able to hide from the issue any longer.”

He hopes Border Sheriffs’ efforts will elevate the issue to the highest reaches of the judicial branch.

“This case is going to the Supreme Court, and we want to be there when it does,” Dever said.