“I don’t know what an illegal immigrant looks like”— those were the words of Arizona Governor Jan Brewer last week. Nevertheless, Brewer and the Arizona legislature asked police all over the state to make that distinction daily by passing SB 1070, which requires police to check the immigration status of every person they “reasonably suspect” could be living in the United States illegally, when “practicable.” When the law goes into effect in a few months, it will essentially legalize racial profiling.
Brewer and other lawmakers claim that SB1070 will be enforced without regard to skin color, but the law offers no criteria on which to determine reasonable suspicion of illegality. Many laws rely on probable cause, but those laws punish an actual criminal activity, such as driving under the influence, an act that produces clues and evidence for police to judge by.
What type of activity can police use to determine if a person is an illegal immigrant? As vehemently as supporters of the bill claim it isn’t racist, they have failed to provide any legal way to determine suspicion except the general stereotypes of appearance and economic status.
This bill, when put into practice, is likely to violate the civil rights of untold numbers of Americans whom police suspect to be in the country illegally because of the color of their skin or attire. The Fourth Amendment promises protection from unreasonable search and seizure, but whether the law will be deemed unconstitutional by courts remains to be seen. Meanwhile, many Latino Arizonans who are living in the country legally are likely to undergo harassment on account of their race.
Not only will this law compromise individual liberties, it will create an atmosphere of fear that will threaten public safety and reduce the quality of life. Undocumented people will be less likely to report domestic abuse if they are just as likely as their abuser to be arrested. People will be afraid to report crime in their neighborhoods because the police will be required to check their immigration status. This law pits police against the community at a time when they should be working more closely than ever to bring safety to every neighborhood. The job of the police should be to protect residents of the state when they are in danger, regardless of their race or immigration status. For this reason, many police chief associations have opposed the bill.
President Obama has spoken out and called this law “misguided,” — the perfect way to describe it. Arizona has the most illegal border crossings, and violence from Mexican drug cartels and smuggling has begun to seep over the border. Recently, a 58-year-old rancher was shot and the footsteps traced back to the border. Today, 70 percent of likely voters in the state support the immigration law. The problems of illegal immigration in Arizona are legitimate, but this law criminalizes an entire ethnic group, forcing police to make judgments based on appearance and arrest people who are not engaged in any otherwise criminal or dangerous activity. This is not a job for local police officers who should be stopping real criminals — murderers, thieves and drug dealers — instead of checking someone’s immigration papers.
Arresting an entire ethnicity will not solve the problem of illegal immigration.
Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis once said that the states are laboratories for democracy, testing out policies that may work for the entire nation. Jon Stewart recently joked that Arizona must be the “meth lab” of democracy. But as easy as it is to make light of this law which many see as ridiculous, we must remember that for many people it will mean living in constant fear. The huge state in which police officers will have a huge amount of personal discretion and power.
Arizona’s new legislation shows that if the federal government delays much longer in producing meaningful immigration reform, the price we pay may be our constitutional rights. Meanwhile, when we hear lawmakers from Arizona harping on the importance of liberty, we should remember how quick they are to deprive others of the freedom of walking down the street without identification papers, or calling the police to report a robbery without having to fear for their own arrest.