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This Week: The Pros and Cons of Racial Profiling And Arizona’s Immigration Law

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton sparked new controversy over Arizona’s so-called “Show me your papers” law when her announcement (during a June 8 interview on Ecuadoran TV) that the Department of Justice would be suing the state of Arizona reached Governor Jan Brewer last week. The debate carried over to ABC’s This Week, where Fox News’ Greta Van Susteren (who sparred with Mediaite over the issue on Friday) made an excellent point.

Greta points out, correctly, that Hillary’s comments in that June 8 interview do not address the issue of racial profiling.

She’s not correct, though, when she says that President Obama hasn’t talked about racial profiling as it relates to the Arizona law. For example, in a May 19 joint press conference with Mexican President Felipe Calderón, Obama said this: (Transcript via White House email)

And I want everyone, American and Mexican, to know my administration is taking a very close look at the Arizona law.  We’re examining any implications, especially for civil rights.  Because in the United States of America, no law-abiding person — be they an American citizen, a legal immigrant, or a visitor or tourist from Mexico — should ever be subject to suspicion simply because of what they look like.

From Van Susteren’s perspective, Clinton and Obama should be putting the racial profiling question to rest, a notion that NPR’s Michel Martin challenges. Despite Greta’s sincere belief that the law does not encourage racial profiling, this is still an open question in the minds of many people:

Ediberto Roman, a professor of law at Florida International University, goes even farther. “It’s pretext to try to suggest that there is no discriminatory purpose,” he told us. “Given that there is a lack of any other basis in terms of how they’re going to enforce it, it’s pretty clear that we’re looking to focus on a particular target group.”

Though the law only allows officials to ask for proof of citizenship in the case of “legal stop, detention or arrest,” this… can include those who are detained as victims of or witnesses to a crime, or people accused of violating local ordinances like noise laws or loitering laws. Roman is concerned that police will be more likely to both stop and to question those who they think look like immigrants. “The legislature was pretty careful in following criminal procedure notions, but it’s the discretion in how the law enforcement will use criminal procedure [that] is how the racial profiling comes into play,” he said.

This is really what’s at the heart of the profiling debate, the fact that, although the law says you can’t profile, no one can explain what other method can be used to find “reasonable suspicion.” What people are missing out on is that this law has implications for US citizens, and not just immigrants. Of course, legal aliens are required to carry their green cards. But how many US citizens carry enough points of identification to verify their citizenship? I know I don’t.

Then again, I don’t really have to worry about it, since it’s not very likely that I’d ever arouse “reasonable suspicion.” It frustrates the hell out of me that when public support for this law is discussed, nobody ever mentions that the percentage of people who favor the law (about 70%) is nearly identical to the United States’ non-Hispanic white population (66% at last count).

Does this mean that supporters of this law are all racists? Of course not. It means that, as people who will never be directly impacted by racial profiling, it just doesn’t occur to them. Their willingness to believe that profiling will not occur, despite the absence of any alternative, is directly related to the fact that they literally have no skin in the game. The tyranny of the majority isn’t necessarily rooted in hate or bigotry, but in a failure of empathy.

I agree with Greta, and with President Obama, that comprehensive immigration reform is badly needed. There are frustrating obstacles to this on both sides of the aisle. I disagree with both of them that this frustration in any way excuses Arizona’s immigration law, or those who support it, and I think history will not look favorably upon them.

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