Nonprofit, nonpartisan journalism. Supported by readers.

Community Voices features opinion pieces from a wide variety of authors and perspectives. (Submission Guidelines)

To enforce Arizona’s new immigration law, police will have to engage in racial profiling

April 23 was a sad day for civil rights in this country. That’s the day Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law a discriminatory immigration enforcement bill that will go down in history as a milestone of bigotry.

April 23 was a sad day for civil rights in this country. That’s the day Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed into law a discriminatory immigration enforcement bill that will go down in history as a milestone of bigotry.

Way to go, Gov. Brewer. Now your state will be mentioned alongside other backward states that were also on the wrong side of history. Think Mississippi and its poll tax that kept blacks from voting. And your name will be spoken alongside the name of Gov. George Wallace, who swore “segregation forever” and tried to stop black students from entering the University of Alabama.

How backward and wrong-headed is the new Arizona law? Consider that it empowers Arizona police officers to investigate the immigration status of every person they encounter who they have “reasonable suspicion” is in the country unlawfully.

The backwardness and discrimination of the law is inherent in the phrase “reasonable suspicion.” In reality, the only situation where an Arizona cop would have “reasonable suspicion” to think a person is an unlawful alien is to actually witness, first-hand, a person crossing the Mexican border into Arizona. Period. And federal police already have the power to stop people in that situation.

No other ‘reasonable suspicion’
There is absolutely no other situation in which a police officer can assert “reasonable suspicion” that does not involve racial profiling. Here’s why.

In 90 days, when the Arizona law becomes effective, how will an Arizona cop determine whether anyone pulled over for speeding, for example, has a “reasonable suspicion” of being an unlawful alien?

Will a driver named Jose Gonzalez be asked to produce citizenship papers while a driver named Joe Gordon will not? If that’s the case, then police will be guilty of racial profiling, and targeting people with Hispanic names or darker skin for more observation and enforcement. That’s un-American, a violation of basic civil rights, and it makes me sick to my stomach.

Or, say a cop encounters two people on a street in Phoenix who both look to be of Mexican descent. One is a natural-born citizen, and the other is in this county unlawfully. Which one will trigger a “reasonable suspicion” in the cop’s mind. The answer should be none … unless the cop engages in racial profiling, in which case he or she asks both people to produce citizenship papers.

Skin color equals guilt
If that becomes the norm, then legal citizens of Arizona with Hispanic names or features will need to carry proof of citizenship with them at all times, while white Arizonans wouldn’t have that extra burden. Your skin color, in other words, indicates guilt, and you’ve got to take steps to prove your innocence. Steps a white person wouldn’t need to take.

How un-American is that? Are Arizonans really OK with a clearly unconstitutional law that treats some Americans as second-class citizens based on the color of their skin? If so, welcome to the wrong side of history and refer back to my earlier comments regarding poll taxes and school segregation.

Gov. Brewer says that racial profiling will not happen, insisting that “We must enforce the law evenly and without regard to skin color, accent or social status.” And just how, Gov. Brewer, is that going to happen in the real world?

I can’t think of any situation, other than a clear instance of an illegal border crossing being observed as it happens, that an Arizona police officer can cite “reasonable suspicion” without it being discriminatory. But I’m sure many readers will disagree with my assertion, and I look forward to reading their comments explaining their reasons for doing so.

But if I may, I’d like to ask just one favor of these folks. I challenge them to include in their comments just one scenario in which a “reasonable suspicion” can be applied in a way that is not discriminatory. Just one.

Tim Walker is a writer living in St. Paul.