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Arizona’s border, all of our civil rights

Rosemary Joyce, professor of anthropology | April 28, 2010

How can police in Arizona enforce the newly passed law requiring them to ask anyone they suspect of being an illegal immigrant for proof of citizenship?

I don’t mean this as a moral or ethical question, although 52-year-veteran Pima County Sherriff, Clarence Dupnik, calls the law “disgusting” and says that it is “unwise” and a “national embarrassment”, and Phoenix Mayor Phil Gordon disclaims the bill as unrepresentative of and “humiliating” for his state’s population.

What I mean is simply this: will all US citizens in Arizona now routinely be required to carry passports, or birth certificates? And if not, what happens when citizens are stopped by suspicious police who think they may be undocumented migrants?

Coverage has rightly emphasized that the law, while claiming to be aimed at supporting detention of undocumented migrants, actually creates new burdens for those immigrants who are in the US legally. Legal immigrants now must carry their papers with them at all times or risk new penalties.

But the requirement to stop anyone “reasonably” suspected of being in the US without legal permission implies more: it will almost inevitably lead to native-born citizens of Hispanic heritage being stopped and asked to produce documents proving they are in the country legally as well. The only way for a native-born citizen to do so would be to produce a birth certificate or passport.

And if the guidelines for enforcement, in order to conform with Arizona’s governor’s promise to avoid using facial appearance cues or language (racial profiling), actually do emphasize such things as the kind of shoes and clothing or haircuts presumed to typify undocumented immigrants, then there is nothing to stop police from detaining citizens of any heritage who dress ike someone’s model of what an undocumented immigrant might wear.

While it is inspiring to see US Representative Barbara Lee speak out along with other members of the Congressional Black Caucus and Asian Caucus to support the denunciation by the Congressional Hispanic Caucus of Arizona’s new law, in reality, everyone should oppose a law that effectively institutes a requirement for US citizens to provide proof of nationality on demand.

Only the reality lurking behind the claim that the law will not lead to racial profiling can account for the complacency of Arizona residents who imagine themselves immune from potential effects of this law.

That lurking reality: any behavioral cues proposed to identify “illegal” immigrants will not be applied to those white enough, blonde enough, tall enough, or otherwise clearly not suspect Latin Americans.”Reasonable” suspicion means more than being alert to dressing down; it means watching for supposed suspect practices among people who already are under suspicion as other.

There is no mystery about why the authors of this bill think Arizona police can avoid detaining citizens and legal residents: in their imagination, there is no difference among Latinos, whether children of families established for generations or those so desperate to escape poverty in Central America that they make the long trip to Mexico to cross the border without documents today. For those who see this law as reasonable, being Latino already makes you un-American, so even citizens should be prepared to prove their status.

This is a law that opens the door to the violation of rights of every citizen and legal resident, and outrage about this law should not be limited to those who know from experience what it is to be stereotyped based on skin color.