Arizona sets dangerous precedent for racial profiling in border states

By Bradford J. Howard
Special to

In the mid-19th century, when slavery was still overtly present in the U.S., African-Americans who were granted freedom prior to the aftermath of the Civil War were often given “freedom papers.” Freedom papers served as written documents that proved certain African-Americans were not slaves and symbolized a former slave’s transition into a new phase of life. But as more and more slaves began to run away from their plantations and, consequently, Fugitive Slave Acts were implemented and enforced, freedom papers gained even more significance — in many cases, they became a sole determinant of how an African-American might be treated and often served as a literal decider of life and death.

On Friday, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer officially signed into state law Senate Bill 1070, the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Neighborhoods Act,” which requires immigrants to carry their alien registration documents on their person at all times. Additionally, it allows state law enforcement to question individuals “where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States.”

The most staunch supporters of the law insist that the state of Arizona is merely picking up where the federal government has slacked off in terms of addressing illegal immigrant and border control problems. Brewer herself contends that the law is ultimately looking out for the safety of Arizonans and that the law is neither concerned with nor guided by racial profiling.

It’s hard to believe this stance, however, when a great amount of effort is being put into explaining what the law is not, but substantially less is being put into explaining what it is. The very fact that Brewer felt a need to clarify in her official statement Friday that she would not tolerate racial discrimination in Arizona — coupled with the need to issue an executive order “to develop training” so Arizona law enforcement officers can appropriately implement the law — suggests her understanding that this law has the potential to be a discriminatory practice.

Furthermore, it goes without saying that the law enforcement officers, regardless of how much training they’re given, will almost certainly always be looking for Latino-identifying individuals under this law.

It gives Arizona police the right to make traffic stops, not-so-random stops on the sidewalk and even to pull aside in a grocery store anyone who looks “illegal enough.” What constitutes that? Does this mean that the Latino individual sitting on a curb will be asked to show his green card while a non-Latino who is professionally dressed won’t be?

Arizona’s governance is setting a dangerous precedent. First, Arizona passing this law gives other states a chance to pass similar laws, and more than likely, it will be the states closest to the Mexican border (Texas, Nevada and California).

Second, it creates a legal justification to rely on stereotypes. When someone says “illegal immigrant” or “undocumented worker” in the U.S., the image that comes to mind is of someone Latino or someone who looks Latino. This will no doubt play into how Arizona law enforcement will determine whom to “stop to determine their immigration status.”

Finally, it puts the immigration debate in a complicated place because assessment of citizenship via race trumps an actual conversation about immigration laws.

There is no equal protection under the law when there is an unequal enforcement of the law. It is undeniable that Arizona’s new law is racially biased and presents a modern-day manifestation of having to show one’s freedom papers. Only now, the burden is on those who look like immigrants, because you can bet anyone who doesn’t look the part won’t be asked anything.

As citizens of this country, we should aspire to have a serious conversation about the need for effective immigration reform. A “compelling interest in cooperative enforcement of federal immigration laws,” to borrow the words Brewer used in her statement on Friday, in Arizona and elsewhere should not come at the cost of the dignity and rights of someone who doesn’t look American enough.

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