Arizona may become the Alabama of this century and Maricopa County the new Selma. Arizona could have just opened a can of worms that has the potential to divide the country in proportions not seen since the 1960’s at the height of the civil rights movement. Early last week, Arizona lawmakers passed anti-immigration legislation that is unique in its stringency and harshness. The bill would strongly encourage police officers to engage in racial profiling by ordering them to check the status of people they merely suspect of being in the U.S. illegally. It would allow police to verify a person’s immigration status if they have a “reasonable suspicion” that someone is undocumented.
What do you picture when your think of an “illegal” or undocumented immigrant? Is it the blonde haired European student who has overstayed her visa? The reality is that “race” and socioeconomic status are the crux of this legislation. This form of policies endanger fundamental due process rights, which resonate those of the Jim Crow era and could set dangerous precedent for the future. This is a critical issue. If we want to move forward in this country and progress as a united nation, we must forgo the racist tactics of the past that legalize racial profiling.
Although Martin Luther King cannot serve as a central figure to combat racism and legal discrimination in 2010, his legacy and philosophies live on. Civil Rights organizations have stepped forward to continue the fight towards justice and equality. Calling it “alarming and unconstitutional,” NCLR (National Council of La Raza), the largest national Latino civil rights and advocacy organization in the United States, urged Arizona Governor Jan Brewer to veto an anti-immigrant bill that would lead to racial profiling. “This bill is an affront to civil rights and it will make all Latinos suspect in their own communities, regardless of their immigration status,” said Janet Murguía, NCLR President and CEO. “Proposals like this one open the door to racial profiling and discrimination against immigrants and U.S. citizens alike. They are subjective in nature and have no checks and balances,” said Daniel Ortega, Chair of the NCLR Board of Directors, who is based in Arizona. “Until Congress passes an immigration reform bill, states will continue to take matters into their own hands and communities and families will remain terrorized.”
There is no doubt that there are massive gaps in our immigration policies however, this by no means justifies the use of tactics common in the WWII era, where local authorities in California placed Japanese citizens and Japanese Americans alike who were “suspected enemy combatants” in internment camps. Such policies are reminiscent of the era where it was commonplace to find signs that read “No Dogs or Mexicans Allowed”. The structure of immigration laws has institutionalized a set of values that dehumanize, demonize, and criminalize immigrants of color. Winslow Arizona City Councilman Tom Chacon, who was born and raised in Southside, would not argue with any of this. “It’s scaring the hell out of people,” he said. “It’s a step backward. I remember when Mexican and African American children were only allowed to swim in the municipal pool on Fridays. On Saturday, the city drained the pool of “dirty water” then refilled it for the white kids.” Moreover, Winslow, Arizona Police Officer agreed, and expressed personal misgivings. “It will make us look like bad guys pursuing people because of the color of their skin.” 
Nevertheless, the bill’s author, State Sen. Russell Pearce, justifies the law by stating simply that it “takes the handcuffs off of law enforcement and lets them do their job.” Furthermore, he states that, “When you make life difficult…most will leave on their own” in reference to undocumented immigrants. However, this begs another important question, is this a new strategy of perpetuating segregation and further marginalizing the Latino community away from mainstream American society?
Thomas Saenz, president and general counsel of MALDEF urged Governor Brewer to recognize that “SB 1070 goes well past the line where political symbolism becomes dangerous policy and irresponsible lawmaking. This law is an open invitation to racial discrimination, community discord, and naked clash between state and federal government. The law’s constitutional flaws will inevitably attract costly legal challenges, to the detriment of all Arizona. Responsible leadership demands a veto.” However, the dismay of such a policy does not stop with civil rights groups but rather extends throughout the societal spectrum: politics, media and church. A Los Angeles Times editorial recognized that, “even legal immigrants, in a move that harks back to fascist Europe, would be required to carry their papers at all times or risk arrest.” Furthermore, Cardinal Roger Mahony of Los Angeles stated that, “American people are fair-minded and respectful. I can’t imagine Arizonans now reverting to German Nazi and Russian Communist techniques whereby people are required to turn one another in to the authorities on any suspicion of documentation”. A New York Times editorial stated that, “the Arizona Legislature has just stepped off the deep end of the immigration debate, passing a harsh and mean-spirited bill that would do little to stop illegal immigration. What it would do is lead to more racial profiling, hobble local law enforcement, and open government agencies to frivolous, politically driven lawsuits”.
All jokes aside, this is a racist law. It asks local law enforcement to apprehend anyone that looks “undocumented”. The United States has struggled with a long history of racism and discrimination: slavery, lynching, Jim Crow and segregation. There have been millions that have died for progress and equality. The fact that Obama and Sotomayor hold two of the most powerful posts in the land should not mean that we should let down our guard and assume that racism is over in this country. Rather it should embolden us to continue to the struggle for equality. It is our generation’s time to reach higher in pursuit of a more tolerant and welcoming society.
George Cisneros is a second year law student at Columbia University Law School where he currently serves as president of the Latino/a Law Student Association.
Los Angeles Times, “In Arizona, drawing lines over border law” April 18th