Tuesday, April 27, 2010

What does Arizona's new immigration law imply about our country?

Lately, there has been quite a bit of coverage in the media about Arizona's new immigration bill. It is the toughest piece of immigration legislation in United States' recent history, and it will give the Arizona police power to detain anyone who they "reasonably" suspect is an illegal immigrant. Moreover, all non-U.S. citizens in Arizona will now be required to carry their documents at all times. As an immigrant to and a citizen of this country, this new law makes me angry and sad because I fear that it will lead to racial profiling and second-class treatment of both legal and illegal residents of this country, and it indicates that America might not be the "land of opportunity" and "the melting pot" that so many people who risk their lives to come here imagine it to be.

I truly worry about the direct implications of this law. In response to many people's criticisms of the potential for racial profiling in this law, law-makers in Arizona have tried to assure us there will be training for the police officers on how to determine whether someone is an illegal immigrant without racial profiling, and Arizona cops claim that they will not racially profile. However, I am not sure how this is really feasible. Now, I will not claim to know very much about how police officers are trained or how they do their job. But, I don't know how one can determine whether a person is an illegal immigrant or not without relying on some observable characteristics of this individual. In particular, we know that the vast majority of illegal immigrants are of Hispanic origin. So, it seems highly unlikely that police officers will demand that a white person walking down the street will present their documents to prove their legal status in this country. They will inherently have to rely on some form of racial profiling -- regardless of whether they are trained to look past race or not. And this means that a certain portion of Arizona's population will be treated in a way that is different (more accurately, worse) than the rest of the population. It's hard to imagine that Arizona cops won't occasionally make mistakes in their assessment of who is legal or not. As a result, they will treat legal residents in this country who just happen to be of the same race as the illegal residents, as second-class citizens. Given the historical significance of racism and discrimination in this country, it seems that policies that actively force police officers to make judgments that are so inherently based on race is a step backwards and detrimental to our progress.

In following the media about Arizona's law, I was heartened to see that so many people share my concerns and have been actively protesting it. But what struck me the most is the quiet, but unyielding support that exists for it. This article, in particular, documents people's opinions on both sides of the debate. Supporters of the law seem to be just tired of these immigrants "congregating on the streets", committing all these crimes (despite the fact that there is no evidence that illegal immigrants commit more crime than the rest of the population), and taking jobs from Americans (although they should probably be more worried about highly-skilled and highly-educated legal immigrants on this front, but people seem to like them more).

I won't pretend that I can speak for the plight of illegal immigrants in this country. But I can say something about the overall immigrant experience. My family and I moved to this country from Russia when I was ten years old. As far as immigrant experiences go, I would say that mine was very fortunate. My parents are highly-educated and spoke some English when we first moved here. This enabled them to quickly find well-paying jobs, and to start adjusting to their new environment. I came at a young-enough age, which allowed me to learn English quickly and to learn to speak without a clearly detectable accent. Further, my family is mostly white (although not entirely), so we have benefited from being able to "fit in" with other upper-middle-class whites in our neighborhood and in our lives. Yet my family (at least in the current generation) will always feel as though it is *not* entirely American. People will always look at my parents, who don't speak English completely fluently and have accents, as outsiders. I know that they feel like that have to work hard to prove that they are capable at their jobs, perhaps harder than some of their more "native" American counterparts. Yet, despite never feeling completely at home in America, my parents chose to uproot their entire lives, leave their friends and families behind, and come to a place that was completely foreign and new. And if you ask them why, they'll tell you that it was to obtain better opportunities for our family and for my future.

And I think that -- this firm belief that America is a place where opportunities abound and where people have a real chance to truly make something of themselves and live comfortably and happily -- is something that all immigrants (legal and illegal) share. Immigrants who are nowhere near as fortunate as my family is -- either because they are considered non-white or they have lower education or are less able to speak English -- still choose to leave their homes, and despite some serious and often life-threatening risks, come to America. Because what was offered to them in their home country was just so dismal and so poor that they had no choice but to seek something better. Because they thought that they could do something to change the fates of their own and their families' lives. And because they couldn't wait for ten or twenty years to get legal authorization to immigrate to the U.S., they had to succumb to a life of fear and second-class citizenship as illegal immigrants. I don't think that any Americans who legally reside in this country can truly imagine or understand the gravity of the decision that an illegal immigrant had to make. And we, as Americans, who supposedly believe in the ultimate American dream of success and making the most of your opportunities, instead of supporting and admiring these individuals for their bravery and determination, treat them as though they are not good enough to be amongst us.

I hope that my fears about racial profiling in this law will not come true, and that police officers will actually implement it not on the basis of race. More importantly, I hope that we act soon to show that America really is a land of opportunity for ALL, and not just for those of us who are lucky enough to be white and have easier access to legal immigration (or have benefited from simply being born here).


  1. Since "illegal" has a negative connotation, I think it might be better to refer to those targeted as "undocumented". Calling them "illegal immigrants" is just a case of status quo bias.

  2. Hey anon, I prefer the term "undocumented immigrant" or "undocumented worker" as well, but I think JSSG's point is well made, and perhaps will be more commonly understood by using the conventional language, and in particular the language in the (terrible) law, which refers to illegal aliens.

    As for that law, my dad's side of the family is non-white immigrants living in Arizona, most of whom speak with heavy accents--I don't see how this law could NOT make them feel discriminated against. The citizenship of all non-white, non fluent English speakers in Arizona has been reduced to a second class variety, subject to illegal search and seizure without probably cause. Because, really, if there is probable cause (e.g., social security fraud) we already have a legal system in place to challenge an individual's immigration status. Since this law allows for "identification" of suspected undocumented immigrants on top of existing immigration regulations, it inherently relies on things that do not comprise probable cause, like race and language.

    This is completely discriminatory, and I believe unconstitutional. I know people love to compare things to Naziism, and few things approach that level of enormity, but having to produce your papers on demand if you looked a certain way was a tactic employed by the Third Reich before things got much, much worse.

  3. I think your words are too kind in terms of the possibility of racial profiling. I don't know what kind of training police will receive either, but as a white Hispanic immigrant whose appearance fits in with the norm, I know I have received significantly different treatment from various authority figures (think police, teachers, etc.) than my peers who better fit Americans' stereotype of an undocumented alien, even as my legal status evolved over the years. I really think an officer's decision to even suspect someone of being undocumented is going to rely 100% on how they look. Are they brown skinned? Are they dressed differently? Are they doing something that is technically not illegal, but we don't want them to do (i.e. congregating outside)? Are they 'different,' in short. How else would they be able to tell whether a person came here legally or not? Clearly the law targets not all undocumented aliens, but only the specific kind of undocumented aliens that has become an eyesore for certain white Americans. I am usually pretty guarded when I assess the implications of new policies, but I firmly believe that racial profiling will be unavoidable.

    I pointed this out on Facebook, but to reiterate another concern: by putting local law enforcement in charge of enforcing federal immigration law, you could be vastly increasing the scope and burden of their jobs, distorting the relationship between the community (particularly immigrant communities) and the police, and making everyone less safe. Do I really want the police officer who is supposed to be protecting me from violent criminals to spend time and resources looking out for people whose only crime is to be undocumented? Further, even legal immigrants who live in immigrant enclaves or live with undocumented family members will be less likely to call on the police and report crimes (the most striking example to me is the case of domestic violence, which is underreported in immigrant communities especially...). The fear and distrust that this law could engender between victims and the police is completely counteractive.

    I could go on and on. This law makes me so sad and angry with the people who are now my fellow Americans. Thanks for taking the time to write about it.

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  5. I agree. One could conceivably argue that the problem of illegal immigrants needed to be addressed in some way. But this was certainly a sub-optimal solution. Some laws are useful and very intelligently address an important issue. This particular law was not. Speaking as an outsider, I think they probably should have thought a little harder about this issue in order to come up with a solution. Of course, I don't live in Arizona. Maybe if I did, I would see why they chose this particular way of addressing the issue.

    Of course, I could be biased on this issue. Some of my favorite people are Hispanics, one of whom is from Arizona. And when I see laws like this getting support, I get concerned for their well-being.

  6. Wow... I just saw this...

    How Mexico Treats Illegal Aliens

    Makes me think a little harder about this issue...

  7. I don't know what Arizona's new immigration law imply about USA, but I know it implies that I'm not visiting Arizona in the near future :)

  8. I live in Farmers Branch, TX. There has been some controversy over a similar law passed here. I have not seen any benefit from the law. In fact, the same people are still here. No changes. I also work here, and deal with the general public in a professional manner. I am of Hispanic origin "Puerto Rican, and Mexian-American" but am light skinned, and the law has not affected me much. However, my father although being a US citizen born in Puerto Rico has been discriminated against. Asked for his papers, and stopped by police. He had lost his birth certificate, but had one of his siblings mail him an original copy from Puerto Rico. Also, his first language is Spanish and although he tries to speak English he just can't speak it without an accent. I'm kind of in between, and not sure about how to deal with this issue. The only thing I know for sure is that we cannot and should not compare our laws with those of Mexico or any other third world country. That's what makes the U.S. different because of our more humane laws and rights. If those are taken away then we have nothing.


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