Racial profiling is stupid. I’m not just saying that because I’m a member of a race that’s often profiled. It’s stupid because it rarely ever works and often does more harm than good. Studies from the Department of Justice and U.S. Customs and Border Protection have determined that concentrating police searches and vehicle stops on ethnic minorities does not stop or reduce crime and is a terrible waste of law-enforcement resources. Indeed, Dr. John Lamberth, creator of one of the first racial-profiling methodologies in the country and an expert in its efficacy, has stated that “the most impressive finding of these studies is their consistency. In every one, minorities are no more likely to be carrying contraband than nonminorities, and in several of the studies they are statistically significantly less likely to have contraband found following a search.”
Which brings us, of course, to Arizona. The recently passed immigration law there allows cops to ask suspected illegal aliens (what a terrible term) for identification. Since the most useful guide in Arizona as to who might be in the United States unlawfully is to start with anybody who looks Mexican, police will more often than not use ethnic identifiers as the basis of any profile. And, that, by the way, is the definition of racial profiling. Arizona’s law attempts to cover that potentially unconstitutional base by requiring officers to have “due cause” to detain someone before asking for their papers. But I suspect my toddler could see through that one ... if a cop wants to find an excuse to check you out, he has one of many to choose from, whether it be speeding or any of the thousands of misdemeanors on the books, such as spitting on the sidewalk or littering. Jan Brewer, Arizona’s governor, has said that “we need to trust our law enforcement.” But how can we trust them not to profile when the law’s very intent is to detain and deport a class of people defined by their ethnicities? The loopholes just seem big and obvious to me because it doesn’t really make any sense to pull over Caucasions or black people if you’re looking for Mexicans or Guatemalans, right? And please don’t give me that tired argument that they’re not just looking for people from Central America, they’re looking for all unlawful residents ... Arizona isn’t worried about being overrun by undocumented Canadians.
The idea of simply asking every Mexican-looking person you come across to present papers is seductive because it assumes that people who are here legally will simply show their passports or green cards or birth certificates (driver’s licenses only prove identity, not citizenship) and go on about their business. People who are here illegally will be stopped, arrested, and possibly jailed or deported. Easy right? Wrong. Let me simply list the ways in which this kind of needle-in-a-haystack policing is dumb, dumb, dumb, and ineffective. (Did I mention dumb?)
1. Such policing is very, very expensive. As it is, Arizona has passed a law it cannot afford to enforce. According to an article in USA Today, “Lyle Mann, executive director of the Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board, says federal assistance is ‘critical’ to what he describes as an unprecedented effort to prepare officers as soon as this summer to enforce the law, which gives local police authority to identify and arrest illegal immigrants.” And check out these numbers uncovered by Slate’s Miranda Simon: “It estimated that just for Yuma alone, one of 15 Arizona counties, enforcement of the law would require at least $20 million—and that the new costs could actually reach close to $100 million. Compare that to the money Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed the new law last Friday, has allocated for local law enforcement in the whole state: $10 million dollars of federal stimulus money. (Keep in mind that Arizona has a state deficit of more than $3 billion.)” And this, of course, does not take into account all the additional monies that would be lost if the threatened boycott of Arizona in protest of the law happens. Already, there is talk of Major League Baseball pulling its All-Star game from Phoenix, nearly two dozen conferences have already been cancelled, and cities such as Boston and San Francisco have banned business with the state. All that adds up to a law Arizona already can’t afford and might even cost the state an additional billion or two in loss of revenue.
2.One of the strongest justifications for Arizona’s new law is that it would make drug and human trafficking more difficult and reduce the kinds of violent crimes associated with such activities. But racial profiling has got to be one of easiest weaknesses for smart criminals to exploit. If drug cartels and human traffickers know that the police are looking for illegal aliens, it doesn’t take a criminal genius to simply use people of other races and ethnicities as drug mules and drivers. Kevin O’Keefe, chief of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives criminal intelligence division, stated in March that white supremacist gangs and Mexican gangs are now working together to move money and guns into Mexico and drugs and people out of it, which effectively neutralizes the new law’s crime-fighting abilities. The drugs will simply move through hands that don’t look Hispanic, like, say, skinheads. In my opinion, only a reduction in demand will really stop drug trafficking and Arizona’s law does nothing to address that.
3. And what about neighborhood policing? This law-enforcement technique, which relies on cops building positive and cooperative relationships within high-crime neighborhoods, has long been touted as at least partly responsible for the huge decreases in crime rates through the ‘90s and into the beginning of the 21st century. But laws such as the one in Arizona create a distrustful relationship between police officers and those they serve and protect. A law-abiding citizen who is asked for his or her papers multiple times a week or day is going to feel hassled, not protected by authorities. Let me ask: how does airport security make you feel? Imagine living like that every day. It’s not really an atmosphere where people will feel comfortable saying something if they see something.
4. And we don’t get to have it both ways here. Yes, undocumented workers are breaking the law, but our demand for cheap labor has made them an essential part of our economy. Many, if not most, of these people come here to perform the low-wage jobs that Americans don’t want and won’t do. Remember former Mexican president Vincente Fox’s comment that, “There is no doubt that Mexicans, filled with dignity, willingness and ability to work, are doing jobs that not even blacks want to do there in the United States.” Though divisive and insensitive, it does raise an indelicate question: how much more are you willing to pay for fresh fruits and vegatables? Double? Triple? It just doesn’t seem right to me to demonize a group of people who fill such an essential role in our economy. And it’s not just produce, most of the numbingly hard labor endemic to American big-food production—whether it be plucking chickens or packaging meat—depends on illegals. Don’t even get me started on the work they do building our houses, mowing our lawns, and babysitting for our kids.
5. Of course, I haven’t yet mentioned the argument opponents seem to like best, which is that Arizona’s new law flies in the face of American democracy. Almost since its inception, this country has been arguing over the high societal cost of being a melting pot: whether it be the fight over deporting freed slaves back to Africa or trying to restrict immigration from Italy, Ireland, Eastern Europe, Asia and the Middle East. And each time, the U.S. has absorbed a new group of people to the betterment of our nation. Perhaps we should acknowledge that immigration, illegal or otherwise, is one of the things that makes this country great. How many of us living here legally have relatives who first snuck into the U.S.? I know I do; as do most of the people I know. That’s why it’s time to introduce a little common sense and historical context into this conversation now. Because this isn’t just a question for Arizona. According to Americans for Legal Immigration, 12 other states—Arkansas, Maryland, Minnesota, Missouri, Nevada, New Jersey, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, and Utah—have movements to pass similar laws in their own states. Which would be a shame, because our democracy is supposed to be better than that.