Today, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed into law the state’s toughest and most biased legislation addressing undocumented immigration. Currently, law enforcement officials can only inquire about a person’s legal status if he or she is suspected in a crime, but under the new law, which passed the state legislature Monday, police discretion would be elevated to allow for an inquiry regarding a person’s status if an officer has a “reasonable suspicion” that someone may not be in this country legally—whether or not that person has actually committed a crime.
In a public statement, state Senator Russell Pearce said, “illegal is not a race, it’s a crime.” But in this new law, is there really a distinction?
Racial profiling is the practice of using race as a proxy for an assumption of culpability. Though some in law enforcement have argued that the practice has merit, the truth is that when we focus on what people have done, rather than what they look like, we are far more likely to catch wrongdoing. For example, a study by the ACLU on racial profiling in Arizona found that while African-Americans, Latinos, Native-Americans and Asian-Americans are more likely to be stopped and searched by law enforcement on suspicion of carrying contraband, whites were actually more likely to be carrying contraband.
WATCH ARIZONA GOV. BREWER’S STATEMENT ON THE NEW IMMIGRATION LAW
The truth is that the new law is absolutely about race, and if lawmakers condone racial profiling in any form, it could guide policing practices that would have a profound negative impact on all people of color, not just Latinos, who are “suspected” of not belonging. “Reasonable suspicion” without specific criteria is extraordinarily subjective, and threatens to violate the personal freedoms we cherish.
Embedded in this law—and the public discourse on racial profiling—is the erroneous assumption that people of color commit most crimes in this country. While racial disparities certainly exist for people of color in contact with the criminal justice system, whites (including those who identify as white Hispanic) officially constitute 69.2 percent of individuals who are arrested for committing crimes in this country. Of course, there is no sense in calling for a racial profiling bill that focuses on white Americans. To assume or assign culpability based upon any person’s racial or ethnic categorization is not only discriminatory and irrational; it is a tremendous waste of public resources.
Criminalization, particularly in this economy, is not a sound response to the issue of immigration. It is, however, a potential assault on the liberties of people who are American citizens and who, because of their racial and ethnic classification alone, would be prone to discriminatory harassment. Our collective response to immigration reform must not be rooted in an endorsement of racial profiling or tied to costly and punitive incarceration. Instead, it must be comprehensive and rooted in best practices. Our economic security and public safety depends on it.