Supreme Court decision on Arizona immigration law could still lead to racial profiling

OPINION - The Supreme Court’s decision about Arizona’s cruel anti-immigration statute is a mixed bag and a cautionary note for black folks...

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

The Supreme Court’s decision about Arizona’s cruel anti-immigration statute is a mixed bag and a cautionary note for black folks. The Supreme Court struck down three odious provisions that are clearly unconstitutional, including the one that would have allowed police to stop without a warrant anyone deemed suspicious of being in the United States illegally and another that criminalizes undocumented people seeking employment.

But it left standing the provision of the law that allows Arizona police to request papers for anyone they stop or detain and mandates checking of documents before releasing anyone who is arrested,  a provision that can only lead to increased racial profiling.

As African-Americans, we must realize that these anti-immigration laws are not about “them” vs. “us” but intrinsically include us in their broad sweep, as civil rights violations always do.  Black people have always been in the forefront of the civil rights movement. Joining our allies on opposing these discriminatory anti-immigration laws is no exception.

We know well the suffering and poisoned fruit that racial profiling yields.  Make no mistake,  we will be caught up in this net of discrimination.  In Alabama, home of the nation’s worst anti-immigrant statute, the first 11 people arrested by Tuscaloosa police for violating the “license not on person” section of its law last year were “two black females, four black males, one white female and four Hispanic males.”

Once locked up, detainees bear the burden of proving their “lawful presence” and are not released until they can.  The first person in the state arrested in alleged violation of Alabama’s anti-immigration law spent an entire weekend in jail before he was determined to be lawfully in the United States and released.

Imagine a nation where racial profiling is not only acceptable but lawful and that you can be asked for proof of citizenship at any time.  In permitting Arizona to keep its “show me your papers” directive, the justices have opened the door to enshrining racial profiling as the law of the land.

Maricopa County was such a place long before its harsh anti-immigration law was passed.  Under the auspices of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, local law enforcement for years had regarded trivial activities such as hanging out in front of a convenience store or riding down the street as probable cause for an officer to approach Latino residents and ask them for identification.  The Department of Justice last month sued Arpaio and the Maricopa County Sheriff’s Office over a number of constitutional violations against Latinos.

In one instance, an officer stopped a pregnant Latina woman – who is a citizen of the United States – as she pulled into her driveway.  Upon exiting the car, the officer ordered her to sit on the hood.  When she refused, the officer forced her arms behind her back and slammed her against the car, stomach first, a number of times.  She was ultimately ticketed for failing to show identification.  Just last week, the controversial sheriff arrested a six-year-old girl who was undocumented.

This came on the heels of an announcement by President Obama that he would halt deportation of young undocumented immigrants  who entered the United States as children.

While anti-immigration laws like Arizona’s specifically target undocumented immigrants, all people of color are at risk.  Racial profiling for some legitimizes racial profiling for all.  United States citizens actually comprise the largest group of undocumented people in the country.  Millions of Americans, disproportionately African American and Latina,  do not have proof of citizenship.

America professes to be the land of the free.  But how free is a state that allows its government to intimidate and arrest people based on the color of their skin?

Our nation’s history is riddled with injustices suffered due to race.  There was a time when African Americans could not walk freely on the sidewalk; a time when looking a white person in the eye could earn one a visit from the lynch mob.  We recall times when we had to hide out for fear of being harassed, or even killed, because our very being made us suspicious.  If the death of one of our own sons in Florida has taught us anything, it is that we still have far to go before realizing America’s full promise of liberty and equality free from the often fatal judgment of you based on the color or your skin.

The Arizona law flies in the face of everything we have fought for. It is antithetical to the quintessentially American values expressed by our civil rights movement.  Thousands marched in New York last week to protest stop and frisk laws that allow those tasked with protecting us from violating our civil liberties on the basis of our appearance. The Supreme Court decision now gives Arizona similar license.

There is hope.  There are still undecided questions of constitutionality.  The court did not rule specifically on racial profiling opening the door to additional legal challenges.  We must join with all Americans who care about civil rights and true democracy, to push for legislation and a public consensus that outlaws racial profiling for all of us and renders it an obsolete shameful part of our past.

 Judith Browne Dianis is co-director of Advancement Project, a next-generation civil rights organization focused on issues of democracy and race.