In Immigration Enforcement, Profiling is not Optional
A few days ago the Supreme Court heard arguments on the constitutionality of a controversial Arizona law (SB 1070) that allows police to question anyone stopped for violations -- including motor vehicle and driving infractions -- about their immigration status.
One of the important arguments presented by opponents of the law centered on the probability that among those stopped a disproportionate number would be minorities, selected on the basis of preconceived assumptions about the ethnicity and English language skills of illegal immigrants.
In a Washington Post opinion piece on the legality of this provision in the Arizona law, Judge Arthur Hunter, Jr. examines a relevant question. When a somewhat similar case had come before his court several years ago in Louisiana, he had asked the arresting police officer just what exactly had caused him to suspect that this individual was in the country illegally? To clarify what he was after, the Judge posed that question in several ways, none of which the police officer was able to answer satisfactorily.
The Judge concluded that ethnic profiling, long prohibited by law, influenced the decision.
Ours is a multiethnic society, and care must be taken not to use laws on the books to harass minority residents. But if we make profiling a punishable offense in immigration enforcement, the fundamental question becomes something else: what defenses does American society have to fight the massive influx of newcomers settling unlawfully in our country?
The answer is indisputable: we have none.
As happens often in our national life, we are forced to make compromises between two worthy ideals, both valued in American democracy. We want to protect people from being stopped by police and interrogated about their immigration status, for we are likely to find that the suspect is a citizen or legal immigrant who has been inconvenienced or perhaps embarrassed by this action.
Yet, we also pride ourselves of living in a country of laws, laws which necessarily require enforcement. In the area of immigration we have long neglected that responsibility, creating a crisis in which upward of twelve million people live here illegally, and many more millions are eager to join them if we continue to look the other way.
We live under the threat of terrorism, with high unemployment and the near-collapse of the safety net we have built for our people over many decades. Enforcement of the immigration laws is not an option - it is imperative if we are to keep the nation safe and able to cope with the unsettling structural changes that are hitting the American economy.
To achieve these goals police must have some leeway in questioning people. A formal apology is owed to the many questioned in error - we deeply regret the inconvenience caused by the delay, but it is the price for living in a land respectful of legitimate authority, now facing major terrorist and economic challenges.
There are choices to be made:
Congress can change the law and open the borders to all who wish to come.
Or we can be serious about applying the laws we already have.
We can't have it both ways.