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Arizona’s Experiment In Large-Scale Profiling

Arizona recently passed a law that practically orders the state’s law enforcement officers to engage in racial profiling.

The bill, which was signed into law on Friday by Republican Gov. Jan Brewer, would make simply being in the United States illegally a misdemeanor. Police officers in Arizona who have a “reasonable suspicion” that someone is in the country illegally will be required to investigate that person’s status. Those who lack the documentation to prove that they are legal visitors, residents or citizens will be arrested. “A lot of U.S. citizens are going to be swept up in the application of this law for something as simple as having an accent and leaving their wallet at home,” said Alessandra Soler Meetze, president of the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.

So, if a light-skinned, gray-haired lady from Calgary stops an officer in Phoenix to ask for directions, will the officer ask to see her passport or immigration card? Not very likely. But if a middle-aged man from Veracruz, wearing a plaid shirt and work boots, asks that same officer for directions, will he be asked for documentation? Probably.

While the law specifies that race alone cannot be considered grounds for “reasonable suspicion,” it does not say that race cannot be a factor contributing to suspicion. How could police officers develop their suspicions, reasonable or otherwise, without relying on factors like appearance and accent that indicate ethnicity more than immigration status? Is there some bright-colored aura that surrounds a German exchange student who has overstayed her visa but not an American-born engineer of Mexican descent or an Argentinean family on vacation?

The law cuts little slack for districts whose police prefer not to harass people who have not manifestly broken any laws. Citizens can sue their local police departments if they feel the law is being inadequately enforced, and no city is permitted to formulate an official policy directing law enforcement officers to ignore the new statute. Police, therefore, will most likely invent spurious grounds to demand papers from people who in reality have done nothing other than look foreign or speak with an accent.

Arizonans are fed up with illegal immigration, which has a greater impact there than almost anywhere else in the United States. Because of the federal government’s failure to enact meaningful immigration reform, Arizonans must daily see the results of broken policies under which businesses suffer regular visits from Immigration and Customs Enforcement and families seeking a way to enter this country die horrible deaths in the desert.

But racism, xenophobia and ignorance have converted this reasonable frustration into a truly hateful piece of legislation. Russell Pearce, the Republican state senator who wrote the bill, told Reuters that he wanted to take the handcuffs off law enforcement and “get them on the bad guys.” State Rep. John Kavanagh claimed, “Illegal immigration brings crime, kidnapping, drugs - drains our government services.” In criticizing the law, Cardinal Roger Mahony noted the hostility that spawned it, commenting in his blog, “The tragedy of the law is its totally flawed reasoning: that immigrants come to our country to rob, plunder and consume public resources. That is not only false, the premise is nonsense.”

Arizonans who are not convinced by arguments based on human rights and dignity ought to consider an argument about baseball. About half of Major League Baseball teams conduct spring training in Arizona. One team, the Diamondbacks, is based there, and tries to cultivate a fan base in Mexico. That’s not going to go so well this year. And good luck trying to persuade the many Latin American players that baseball recruits that they should come, and perhaps bring family members, to training camps in a state that rolls out such a warm welcome to anyone who pronounces the letter "j" as though it were an "h" in English.

The ACLU and other groups plan to go to court to block the new law from taking effect. They draw hope from a New Hampshire state court decision that struck down a similar law that said illegal immigrants were guilty of trespassing.

I am not optimistic that the courts will stop Arizonans from making the mistake they are determined to make. I believe the politics of the matter prompted Brewer to sign the bill, and I suspect that the federal courts will uphold the statute even if they disagree with its premise or limit the manner in which it is enforced.

The only real solution is a federal immigration policy that permits people who want or need to work here, or to be reunited with family here, to do so legally as long as they conduct themselves as law-abiding, taxpaying residents. We can always use a few more hard-working immigrants. They built this country, and they will keep building it if we let them.

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