Show Me Your Papers, Show Me More Racial Profiling


The U.S. Supreme Court ruling on Arizona's SB 1070 statute directed a national spotlight on one of the most draconian anti-immigration laws of our times. The law virtually stripped an entire segment of our society of the most basic civil rights.

While the Court struck down most provisions of SB1070, it upheld the section that allows local police to act as an arm of Immigration, Customs and Enforcement (ICE), the principal investigative branch of the U.S. Department of Homeland Security

The “show me your papers” provision of the law is problematic for several reasons. It will result in increased racial profiling of Latinos. It will impact safety and increase crime as immigrant communities fearful of deportation refuse to cooperate with law enforcement, and as limited police resources are diverted from addressing crimes to handle immigration.

And, finally, it will subject police officers and their agencies to liability for alleged racial profiling.

Using race as a predictor of unlawful immigration status will become the norm for some law enforcement officers in Arizona and other states with similar laws on the books. Monolingual Spanish speakers, limited English speakers and Latinos in general will become the primary targets for these immigration enforcement efforts, because most officers aren't trained to determine a person's immigrations status in a race neutral manner.

Racial profiling is already a major problem in some parts of Arizona.

As the former Chief of Police in Mesa, AZ, I witnessed first-hand the racist, unconstitutional policing practices by the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office. The U.S. Department of Justice's recent decision to file a lawsuit against Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his office affirms what many of us knew were illegal tactics designed to demonize and intimidate the Latino community.

Sheriff Arpaio blames most crime in Maricopa County on the immigrant community. However, an informed analysis of crime patterns paints a very different picture. During my three-year tenure as police chief in that city, serious crime dropped by 30 percent.

In contrast, in areas policed by Arpaio, violent and other serious crime increased substantially.

The only difference between Mesa and the areas policed by Arpaio's deputies was our focus and style of policing. In Mesa we concentrated our efforts on building strong working relationships with all of our communities including the Latino immigrant community.

Consequently, our residents mostly trusted the police and felt comfortable reporting crimes and working with law enforcement to make our city safer. Immigrants did not have to fear the Mesa Police Department.

Arpaio, on the other hand, preferred to spend his time demonizing Latinos and rounding up immigrants, frequently detaining U.S.- born Latinos and authorized immigrants until they could prove their status in the country. Arpaio's approach not only created community mistrust; it also diverted limited police resources away from addressing violence and serious crime.

This misplaced emphasis on enforcing Federal immigration laws drove crime up in Maricopa County.

Immigration laws are complex and mostly misunderstood by the average patrol officer. Crossing the border without proper documents or remaining in the country after your visa expires do not always constitute a crime under U.S. law. These and many other violations of the Federal immigration statutes can be administrative in nature, and their enforcement by street-level police officers is fraught with potential constitutional problems.

Having local and state police enforce immigration laws regularly will subject the officers and their agencies to increased liability for accusations of racial profiling, illegal detentions and arrests. Arpaio's Sheriff's Department is squandering millions in litigation stemming from allegations of unconstitutional policing. Other police agencies forced to comply with SB1070 will face similar accusations and losses.

Arizona law enforcement officials have a tough job ahead of them in enforcing this “show me your papers provision.”

Immigration is a complex area of the law. It is best left up to ICE, lawyers and the courts— rather than police officers.

It should not be adjudicated on the street corners of our nation.

George Gascón was elected San Francisco's first Latino District Attorney in November, 2011 after serving as the city's police chief since 2009. A former Los Angeles police officer, he rose to the rank of Assistant Chief and Director of Operations for the LAPD before leaving in 2006 to become chief of the Mesa AZ police department. He welcomes comments from readers.

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