On June 25, the Supreme Court ruled on the provisions of the Arizona state laws meant to prevent illegal Latino immigration and find hidden illegal immigrants already in the state and deport them. Police in the state can stop anyone if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that the person is, or is with, an illegal immigrant. Lyle Mann, Executive Director of Arizona Peace Officers’ Standards and Training Board, created an instructional video for police officers outlining what they should look for when they are assessing whether someone is an illegal immigrant, including “dress, demeanor, unusual or unexplained nervousness” and trouble speaking English.
There are no guidelines given on what illegal immigrants dress like, or what their “demeanor” is. I have never seen a category of clothing online or in a store called “Illegal Immigrant.”
It’s hard to believe that the Court would uphold a provision of the law that allows police officers to act on their sixth-sense, that enshrines “reckoning” as a process upheld by law. But the most controversial provision of the Arizona law was upheld: the “show me your papers” provision requires state law enforcement officials to determine the immigration status of anyone they stop “if there is reason to suspect that the individual might be an illegal immigrant.”
Again, what anyone “suspects” is usually hard to defend in court, but in this case those “suspicions” were supported. The three provisions blocked by the Court were: (quote from the NYT) “making it a crime for immigrants to fail to register under federal law, making it a crime for illegal immigrants to work or to try find work, and allowing the police to arrest people without warrants if they have probable cause to believe that they have done things that would make them deportable under federal law.” This third provision means that the police could arrest a person they think committed a crime that could get them deported. Again, what an officer “suspects” is the core of this provision. Why it was not upheld while the other “suspicion” was is unclear.
Those who say this will not validate and encourage racial profiling are almost certainly fooling themselves. When an officer is asked to look at someone’s clothes that officer is being told, “Illegal immigrants dress a certain way because they all come from Mexico and they all wear this or that kind of jeans, shirts, hats, etc.” When an officer is asked to look for people who can’t speak English well, that officer is naturally going to look for people s/he considers to look “foreign”—a white person is very likely to be overlooked in favor of a darker-skinned person, a person with black hair, etc.: in short, a Mexican.
Because that’s what this law is about in Arizona: stopping Mexican people from crossing the border illegally. It is a law about Mexican immigration, and therefore a law about Mexican people: identifying them and deporting them.
One can only point out that the U.S. only has a problem with illegal immigration because we have made it very difficult to emigrate here legally. This is a policy adopted after WWII. Throughout its long history, the U.S. has often tried to prevent certain people from entering the country—Italians, Chinese, Eastern Europeans, to name a few—but it has never had a blanket policy of trying to stop immigration itself. Today immigrants from any nation face an uphill battle of many years to become citizens that includes having to get an employer to sponsor you for multiple years, tests on American history and government, and paperwork, paperwork, paperwork (which also adds up to money, money, money).
We now make it much harder to become a legal immigrant than we have ever done before. That’s it. It’s not that today’s immigrants are more criminal. It’s not that our own sainted immigrant ancestors were more law-abiding. It’s simply a matter of changing the law to make it harder to become a citizen. What were the “rules” for immigrants coming through Ellis Island for so many years? Look healthy and have your name listed on the register of the ship that brought you. That was it. “If the immigrant’s papers were in order and they were in reasonably good health, the Ellis Island inspection process would last approximately three to five hours. The inspections took place in the Registry Room (or Great Hall), where doctors would briefly scan every immigrant for obvious physical ailments. Doctors at Ellis Island soon became very adept at conducting these ‘six-second physicals.'”
When I visited the Ellis Island museum in 1991, I saw a film that said you also had to provide the address of a friend, sponsor, or family member who would take you in. And off you went. Those rules were pretty easy to follow. If that’s all we asked of Mexican immigrants today, we wouldn’t have illegal immigrants.
Each generation looks back to earlier immigrants as “good,” and views current immigrants as bad. In the 1880s, the Irish were angry at the incoming Italians. In the 1900s, the Italians were banning the Chinese from coming in. As each immigrant group settles in, it tries to keep the next group out.
It’s really time we ended this cycle. Here are some quick pointers:
1. Latin American immigrants are not qualitatively different than previous European immigrants.
2. Spanish-speaking immigrants do NOT refuse to learn English; in fact, the children of Spanish-speaking immigrants are less likely to speak the old language than the children of other groups (that is, more children of Chinese immigrants speak Chinese than children of Mexican immigrants speak Spanish).
3. Your European immigrant ancestors (and mine!) honored nothing when they came to the U.S. but their desire to be here. They didn’t anxiously adhere to “the rules.” They did the bare, bare minimum that was asked of them, which was easy to do.
4. If we reverted to our earlier, extremely simple requirements for entering the country and becoming a citizen, we would not have illegal immigrants. If we choose not to go back to the earlier requirements, we have to explain why.
The usual explanation is that if we made it as simple now as it once was to enter this country and become a citizen, the U.S. would be “flooded” with “waves” of Latin Americans, poor and non-English-speaking, ruining the country. Which is exactly the argument that has always been made against immigrants, be they Irish, German, Italian, Chinese, Jewish, etc. Each group is going to destroy the country and American culture and society. It never seems to happen.
But it might happen now, with Latin American immigrants, not because they will destroy the country but because those in the U.S. who are so afraid of them will rip the country—and the Constitution—apart trying to keep them out. Taking the long view, I can say there’s hope that that won’t happen. But it will take a good fight to get all Americans to realize that the key to this nation’s success has always been the open-door policy.
Immigration will always be with us—thank goodness! The only informed position on the challenges it poses is a historically informed position.