"Papers please"? No thanks.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Yesterday, the ACLU announced that it would join a number of other civil rights organizations in challenging Arizona's harsh new law. Though the measure purportedly targets only undocumented immigrants, it actually turns Arizona into a police state where everyone must carry their “papers” at all times or risk arrest.  You may have caught coverage of the press conference we did when the Arizona law was first signed.  Even though we at the ACLU have become accustomed to seeing egregious pieces of legislation, this Arizona law stands out as a virtual “greatest hits” of proposals to curtail due process and invite racial profiling.

The Arizona law makes immigration violations a crime under state law (even though they are civil violations under federal law) and requires law enforcement officials to investigate the immigration status of every person whom they have reasonable suspicion to believe is in the country unlawfully.  People who cannot prove that they are in the country legally can be arrested without a warrant, regardless of their actual immigration or citizenship status.  And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Like many others, we have grave concerns about this law.  Unfortunately, it’s impossible to tell by looking at someone whether or not they’re undocumented—and local cops don’t have any specialized training to figure out an individual’s legal status (a devilishly difficult task even for trained federal immigration officials).  The fallback will be that officers substitute their own biases—leading to many people being stopped and forced to prove their citizenship simply because they look or sound “foreign.”

The law will also hinder effective law enforcement by diverting scarce police resources towards immigration enforcement rather than combating criminal activity, and by discouraging crime victims and witnesses—especially minorities—from calling the police for fear of being questioned about their immigration status.  Many police agencies oppose this kind of law for exactly this reason—it undermines their ability to protect the communities they serve.

As you can imagine, the list of constitutional issues with the law is longer than my arm.  It improperly interferes with federal immigration law, violates the free speech rights of day laborers and others seeking work in public, and denies the many likely victims of racial profiling their constitutional rights to equal protection of the law and freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures.  Hence the ACLU lawsuit. Also yesterday, the Seattle City Council voted to condemn the Arizona law—a positive step.

In the wake of the recent police beating of an innocent Latino man in Seattle (see our statement on the incident), we should be doubly vigilant when looking at laws like this.  The Seattle incident proves that it just takes the wrong person tasked with enforcement for things to go south quickly.  Gang laws proposed in the state legislature are cut from the same cloth—taking away due process based on looking the wrong way or hanging out with the wrong people.

And although we’re lucky not to have seen Arizona-style legislation here so far, let’s not kid ourselves—it could happen here.  We’ve seen our share of legislative efforts targeting immigrants that would have the same kinds of negative effects.  Now it’s up to us to reject such efforts in order to ensure that we honor our commitment to civil liberties—and to make sure that what happens in Arizona stops in Arizona.