I feel much better. When Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a vindictive, ill-conceived, and hypocritical law that is a recipe for profiling and unconstitutional on its face, I was a little worried. Unlike a lot of Americans — and from the sound of the debate over SB 1070, particularly a lot of white Americans — I take racial and ethnic profiling seriously.
And even before the New Jersey attorney general acknowledged, in a 1999 report, the use of racial profiling in stops and vehicle searches by state troopers, I’d already made peace with the fact that a practice the existence of which is often denied by police officers is alive and well behind the thin blue line.
But now that conservative commentators and Republican politicians assure me that the Arizona law is nowhere near as frightening as it appears, I realize that it was silly to have worried.
Just one thing: I might be more persuaded by the argument that critics of the law are just hysterical and concerned for no good reason if the people making those claims had a stake in the game. You see, it’s easy to tell critics to stand down when, by virtue of skin color, you’re not likely to wind up kneeling on a Phoenix street with your fingers interlocked behind your head.
I don’t think we’re likely to see Fox News contributor Bill Kristol in that position the next time he goes out to Phoenix for a speech to a Republican audience — the sort of thing where people pick at chicken Caesar salads (chicken brought to you by a poultry processing plant staffed by illegal immigrant workers, lettuce picked by illegal immigrant workers) while a nanny of questionable legal status is home watching the kids.
Yet during a recent installment of Fox News Sunday, Kristol — who is normally, by his own admission, somewhat liberal on immigration, even the illegal kind — suggested that, when all is said and done, maybe no more than a dozen U.S.-born Hispanics in the entire state of Arizona will be inconvenienced by having to prove they have the legal right to be in the United States. And besides, Kristol asked, what’s the worst that can happen? A few people suffer the minor inconvenience of having to show their birth certificate or some other proof of citizenship. Big deal.
Nor are we likely to see fellow syndicated columnist George Will in a “perp walk” in Tucson for not having his “papeles” with him the next time he’s at spring training. Will called it “passing strange for federal officials, including the president, to accuse Arizona of irresponsibility while the federal government is refusing to fulfill its responsibility to control the nation’s borders.”
Thus Will swallowed the ludicrous assertion advanced by crafters of the law that the reason that there are so many illegal immigrants in Arizona — nearly 500,000 according to some estimates — is because of Washington’s failure to control them. These folks refuse to accept that the real culprits are about half a million Arizonans who hired these people to cook their food, clean their homes, tend to their children and senior citizens, etc.
Will also blasted liberals — a pastime I’ve been known to engage in myself when it comes to other matters — for assuming that “police officers are insensitive incompetents.”
Do I think that? Heavens no. I just think they’re human. After all, as the son of a retired cop who spent 37 years on the job, and someone who grew up around cops — and has substantially more experience with the species than many columnists — I can’t shake what my father has told me over the years about the snap judgments that come with the territory when you put on a badge. Inevitably, some of those assumptions are based on race and ethnicity. Anyone who denies that is either dishonest or delusional. My father is neither, which is why he has no trouble acknowledging racial and ethnic profiling as a fact of life in police work.
Those who rushed in to defend SB 1070 wound up looking foolish when the original version of the law had to be fixed. A week after signing the law, Brewer allowed herself a “do-over” by signing an amendment of changes intended to eliminate the possibility of racial and ethnic profiling.
Sure, Governor, anything you say. But weren’t you the one who assured us there was nothing to worry about the first time?
Now police officers can prowl for illegal immigrants only in the course of enforcing some other law or ordinance. In the original law, all that was required was “lawful contact.” Another change is that now the state attorney general or a county attorney cannot investigate complaints based on a person’s race, color, or national origin. The original law allowed for race, color, and national origin to be considered as one of several factors and only prohibited law enforcement from focusing “solely” on those characteristics.
This is window dressing. In the real world of policing, it’s impossible for law enforcement officers — particularly beat cops who lack the special training given Border Patrol agents — to decipher one’s legal status without taking race and ethnicity into account. Anyone who claims otherwise is — see above — dishonest or delusional.
Besides, there is one additional change that makes the law even more dangerous. That change says that the requirement at the heart of SB 1070 — that a police officer must determine the immigration status of an individual who they have a “reasonable suspicion” is in the country illegally — extends to those instances where police respond to something as minor as city ordinance violations. That could include loud parties, barking dogs, cars on blocks, or overcrowded apartments. Is that the kind of hardcore criminal activity the law was intended to prevent?
SB 1070 went from bad to worse. It’s time to start worrying. Luckily, those of us who never stopped already have a head start.