By Bill Boyarsky
Arizona and its new immigration law offer a frightening preview of the police-state mentality that could envelop other parts of the nation if anti-immigrant hysteria spreads to other states with weak-kneed legislatures and city councils.
Under the law signed last week, cops can stop anyone if officers think there is “a reasonable suspicion” the person is in the country illegally. People can be jailed for the vague offense of trespassing if they are stopped on public or private land. The law requires some form of government identification to prove legal status. Arizona, as Linda Greenhouse wrote in The New York Times, would, in effect, require “internal passports, one of the most distasteful features of life in the Soviet Union and apartheid-era South Africa.”
I’ve vacationed in the Phoenix area of Arizona during baseball spring training for many years, the domain of Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio. He’s infamous for his department’s sweeps through Latino neighborhoods, arresting dark-skinned people on suspicion of being illegal immigrants. The U.S. Justice Department is investigating the practice. He’s more infamous for his male, female and juvenile chain gangs wearing black-and-white striped uniforms. He also forces male prisoners to wear pink underwear.
My brother Jeff and I take a cab when we go out to dinner at night, fearing that a cocktail or a glass of wine might land us on the chain gang or in pink shorts. In a way this is good. Drinking and driving is bad.
However, we also are constantly aware that we could be stopped for no apparent reason at all. That’s what can happen in Maricopa County now, even before the new law takes effect.
Take the case of a Latino truck driver, born in Fresno, Calif., who was stopped in the Phoenix area shortly after the immigration law was signed. When he arrived at a weighing station, he was asked for identification. He gave an officer his commercial driver’s license and his Social Security number. “He [the officer] came back and said ‘I need your birth certificate,’ ” the driver told Channel 3TV in Phoenix. “I said it’s in my house.”
The driver was handcuffed, put in a van and taken to the immigration and customs law enforcement building in Phoenix. An agent called his wife and told her to bring over his birth certificate. She drove home from work, retrieved the birth certificate and took it to the immigration building.
Her husband was released 90 minutes later.
She asked the agent why her husband had been jailed. The agent replied that he hadn’t answered the questions correctly. “We can be stopped any time,” the wife said. [We] have to bring the certificates with us. ... It just doesn’t feel like a good way of life, to live with fear, to be stopped.”
News coverage has centered on its impact on Latinos, 30 percent of the state’s population. This ignores the impact the law will have on others with immigrant roots, particularly those from Middle Eastern countries and South Asian nations such as India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka.
“This is not just something that will affect the Latino community,” Affad Shaikh, civil rights manager of the Council on American-Islamic Relations of Greater Los Angeles, told me. “This will affect minorities across the board. ... This law legitimizes racial profiling. How will they be able to tell if you are documented or undocumented?”
Anas Hlayhel, chairman of the Arizona branch of the Council on American-Islamic Relations, said, “American Muslims have faced the detrimental effects of racial profiling, and we stand against the broad and generalized application of this practice.”
Sheriff Arpaio’s Maricopa County is an extreme example of what can happen when police are given such wide authority to make arrests. Influenced by anti-immigrant activists, other state legislatures may pass the same kind of law. The Associated Press reported that a Texas legislator said she will introduce a measure similar to the Arizona statute. Cities and towns around the country have enacted or proposed harsh immigrant statutes.
I talked about this possibility with Ahilan Arulanantham, director of immigrants’ rights and national security for the ACLU of Southern California. He told me, “I think it does have implications beyond Arizona because the political sentiments that drove this law exist elsewhere, and that is why it is important to establish that this law is unconstitutional. If other legislatures recognize that, it should prevent them from copying it.”
Constitutional experts are divided on whether a court would throw out the law. Professor Hiroshi Motomura of the School of Law at the University of California, Los Angeles, told The New York Times, “My view of the constitutional question is that it is unconstitutional. But it’s a far cry from predicting empirically what a judge who actually gets this case will do.”
That is why it is important for Congress to pass and President Barack Obama to sign a comprehensive immigration bill. It should give illegal immigrants a clear path to citizenship. The measure should also make it clear that enforcement of immigration laws is a federal matter, not something left to the whims and prejudices of local cops like Sheriff Joe Arpaio.
But this is much more than an immigrant issue. Giving police the authority to stop a person on the “reasonable suspicion” he or she is an illegal immigrant clears the way for the arrest of anyone from an American-born Latino doctor to an Indian-American professor to an English immigrant who somehow offended an angry, ignorant or oversensitive police officer.
Such statutes are a step toward a police state, and the president and Congress should get to work on a federal immigration law immediately. In the meantime, stay away from Arizona.
AP / Guillermo Arias