Arizona immigration law must pass the prejudice test

The Arizona immigration bill lacks enough safeguards against racial or ethnic profiling by police in the fight against illegal immigration. So, too, does the federal 287(g) program that allows local enforcement of US immigration laws.

Those seeking a firmer crackdown on illegal immigration in the US carry a particular moral burden. They must also call on law enforcement officials not to resort to ethnic or racial profiling when enforcing immigration laws.

This burden may fall particularly hard on Arizona soon.

The legislature in that state has just passed a measure that would require police officers to check the immigration status of anyone if there is a “reasonable suspicion” that person may be in the country illegally. The governor, Jan Brewer, a Republican, is now weighing whether to sign the bill.

With this act, Arizona – whose border is especially porous to illegal crossings from Mexico – would be simply taking a national trend one step further.

Local enforcement of US immigration laws has expanded since 2006, driven by rising popular demand to curb illegal immigration as well as support from Washington. Under a federal program known as 287(g), states and local agencies can voluntarily sign up with the US Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency to act with federal authority in enforcing US immigration laws – but only while making arrests for local or state crimes.

The Arizona measure would drop that key stipulation and compel police to pick up illegal immigrants “when practicable.” Citizens could even sue officials to compel such enforcement.

In both efforts, however, the most worrisome aspect is that there are not strong enough safeguards against illegal profiling by police who may be prejudiced against certain types of immigrants. This lapse could not only lead to civil rights abuses but also may help sink efforts in Congress to finally solve the problem of some 10 million illegal immigrants living in the US.

The Latino community must be convinced that it is not being targeted simply on the basis of race or ethnicity in any government drive to secure America’s borders and uphold the rule of law. In addition, Latinos in local communities cannot live in fear of arbitrary detention by police; otherwise they will not be cooperative in assisting law enforcement in battling criminals.

Last month, the 287(g) program was criticized in an internal report by the inspector general of the US Department of Homeland Security, which overseas immigration through ICE. The report said ICE must increase its “attention to the civil rights and civil liberties records of current and prospective” states or local agencies that participate in the program. A similar warning was made last year by the investigative arm of Congress, the Government Accountability Office (GAO).

The head of the 287(g) program said last year that the agency had received no complaints about profiling. And under President Obama, the program has begun to focus mainly on running checks on illegal aliens already in jail in order to deport them.

Nonetheless, enough reports of abuses exist that both federal and state officials must be more vigilant in training police to avoid bias in enforcing immigration laws.

Racial profiling, as an issue, flared up last year when President Obama intervened in a case involving the arrest of a prominent black academic at Harvard University by a white policeman. Many lesser-known instances of alleged profiling against immigrants must also be dealt with swiftly and sternly.

To better tackle illegal immigration, both Arizona and ICE must realize that upholding civil rights must go hand in hand with upholding the law. One cannot be neglected at the expense of the other.

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