The new Arizona law, which has received so much national attention, is bad policy for a number of reasons. First, it transforms state and local police into immigration agents, undermining their ability to form the community relationships they need to do their jobs effectively. That is why there has always been a separate, Federal entity (formerly the INS, now ICE) who handles immigration matters while local police fight street crime.
It also creates a new state crime, which will result in thousands of illegal immigrants who should be deported, instead clogging our state courts and already over-crowded prisons at taxpayer expense.
Plus, it effectively requires every person, not just immigrants, to carry ID with them at all times. We all know the old cliché about the man in military dress demanding, "show us your papers". This is a cliché for a reason. Prior to the Arizona law, it has always been a part of our national self-image that as a free people, we don’t have to carry our "papers" whenever we leave our home.
However, the biggest problem with the Arizona approach is that it not only permits, but actually requires racial profiling. Proponents of that new law, both in Arizona and Pennsylvania deny this. And in fact the law does not say, in so many words, "thou shalt racially profile." But there really is no way for the police to enforce this law without such profiling.
The law says that if the police make "any lawful contact" with a person, they may investigate their immigration status if they have "reasonable suspicion" that that person may be here illegally. "Any lawful contact" is such a breathtakingly broad standard it could mean literally any contact. It need not require suspicion that said person has committed a crime. It could be ascertaining if that person is a witness to a crime he is not suspected of. It could be simply asking the person to move out of the way if he’s standing in the wrong place.
Once that contact is made, the police may request immigration documents based on "reasonable suspicion" of illegality. But what, in the real world, would trigger that reasonable suspicion? Very few people wear "Kiss me, I’m illegal" T-shirts or spontaneously blurt out "You got me, I’m undocumented!" So what does an illegal immigrant look like? What would cause a police officer to interact with two people, and decide one person is worthy of further investigation and one is not? There is only one answer, race.
Think of it this way. Two guys get into a fight while playing baseball. The police are called to break it up. Neither has ID. One is a Caucasian named Thomas Stevens who has no discernable accent. The other is a brown skinned man named Jose Figueroa who has a slight Hispanic accent. That’s all the officer knows. Which one of these men do you suppose will be detained for further investigation into his immigration status? Jose may be a citizen. He may have been born here. But simply because of his race his treatment will be very different.
Put another way, I will never be asked to prove my immigration status. My name, complexion and Northeast Philadelphia accent guarantee that no matter what I do to attract the attention of the police, my nation of origin will not be part of the conversation. Contrast that with an American citizen of Hispanic descent in Arizona, whose name and complexion virtually guarantee that every interaction with the police will involve a demand for proof that he really belongs here.
The Arizona law says that ethnicity may not be the SOLE basis for finding there is "reasonable suspicion," but it may be a factor among others. This is the most offensive part of the law. For the first time in almost 50 years in America, a person’s race is a legitimate, de jure, legal basis to suspect him of a crime.
I acknowledge that we as a nation do not have an effective immigration policy. Comprehensive immigration reform is imperative. But because we should do "something" doesn’t mean we should do "anything". Any action we take must be consistent with America’s character and our values as a people. Legalized racial profiling is neither.
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