By Marcia Alesan Dawkins
“You’ve been randomly selected for a search.” These are the words I heard as I was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Protection upon my return from a recent trip to Canada. The hourlong experience was harrowing—I was asked questions about where I was born, whether English was my first language, whether I had credit cards or cash, what I do for a living, why I was traveling, where I had gone, how my traveling companion and I knew each other, and what I was carrying in my pockets, purse and luggage. I was forbidden to stand, place my hands in my pockets, make phone calls and use the restroom without asking for permission. All of this I took in stride because I figured that it was being done in the interest of national security. Certainly, an hour of my time is well spent in helping to ensure the safety of my fellow citizens.
Though this was not how I envisioned I’d be spending a Sunday evening, it became a golden opportunity for me to think about and observe what would become a fiery issue exactly one month later when Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed Senate Bill 1070 into law. As written, “the provisions of this act are intended to work together to discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the U.S.”
This law has raised many questions. Some seem straightforward, like who is considered an “alien” and how “unlawful presence” is determined. Some questions are more complex, like what counts as “reasonable suspicion,” a “practicable” situation and “reasonable attempts … to determine immigration status.”
I decided to find some answers by interviewing two recent legal immigrants to Los Angeles, Susan, a 34-year-old from the United Kingdom, and Maria, a 33-year-old from Mexico. The conversation was fascinating. We talked about how Arizona dealt with the MLK holiday; Public Enemy’s now classic “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” performed to make the public aware of Arizona’s troubles with diversity, and the new song they’ve performed in protest against SB 1070 called “Tear Down That Wall”; and the state’s recent abolition of ethnic studies courses from state curricula. We moved on to criticisms they’d heard from the sports and entertainment industries, including how “Family Guy’s” Seth McFarlane is reported to have called the law a “slap in the face,” comparing the legislation to the Nazis’ tradition of requiring people to present their “papers” on demand. We discussed economic implications related to the Major League Baseball Players Association’s opposition to “this law as written” and how it “will consider additional steps necessary to protect the rights and interests of … [its] members.” We questioned whether the protest performed on Cinco de Mayo by the Phoenix Suns pro basketball team, wearing “Los Suns” on their jerseys to show solidarity with Latino communities, was effective. Then there was a heated debate about the violent and viral “Machete Trailer,” filled with A-list actors who oppose the law and its proponents (the clip currently has over 1 million YouTube hits).
More political issues soon arose. While both Susan and Maria agreed that illegal immigration is a growing and important problem for the U.S. economy and security, and both support aspects of the bill that pertain to employers’ responsibility and fines, both are deeply troubled by the ethnic and racial profiling permitted by the law’s ambiguous wording. Susan described herself as a “neutral-looking person that no one’s interested in” because of her physical appearance and British accent. She doesn’t believe she would create “reasonable suspicion” but she fears for the images of all immigrants that the law creates in the minds of law enforcement officers. Maria, who called the law “an exercise in mega-discrimination,” also described herself as “neutral-looking” but definitely felt targeted by the law because of her accent and family name. “If I were in Arizona I just wouldn’t feel safe, even if I were carrying all the appropriate documents,” she said. Then there’s the issue of paperwork backlogs. Both Maria and Susan wondered what might happen when a person who raised “reasonable suspicion” is here legally but government agencies have not fully processed her or his visa paperwork.
Arizona’s SB 1070 also reminded Maria of a law that eventually was declared unconstitutional, California’s 1994 Proposition 187, also known as the “Save Our State” initiative, designed to prohibit illegal immigrants’ access to social services, health care and public education. Maria’s fear is that Arizona’s law will force undocumented immigrants further underground and create a deeper subculture that brings with it just what the law is supposed to eliminate—more conflict and confusion. “Families, governments and communities will be further divided by this kind of law, not just geographically but politically and economically,” she said.
Surprisingly, Susan and Maria disagreed on the power of the proposed boycott of Arizona businesses. Susan was in favor of it; Maria was not. Maria was very concerned that further economic recession in the state would only serve to enhance the racial, ethnic and nationalist conflicts among citizens, legal immigrants and illegal immigrants.
For an expert word on the matter I turned to Dr. Ulli Ryder, a professor at Brown University’s Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. According to Ryder, “the law is unconscionable and could very well prove to be unconstitutional. It is based on the assumptions of illegality and racial and ethnic profiling.” Ryder also pointed to the nation’s history of requiring people of certain racial and ethnic groups to carry papers that proved they were allowed to move about. “For instance, the enslaved were required to carry passes that showed they had permission to travel when questioned by whites at any time. This is where we get the term passing.” Enslaved persons who looked like they were white were able to “pass” through checkpoints without producing any papers at all. This tradition continued well into the segregation era and “helped to create many divisions among multiracial and African-Americans.” Like Maria, Dr. Ryder is afraid that Latino communities will suffer the same fate in the wake of this law.
So, where do we go from here? Do we grant amnesty to illegal immigrants as we did in 1986 with the Immigration Reform and Control Act? After much conversation I’m not sure that anyone really knows. One thing’s for sure: Arizona has taken a drastic step in attempting to find the answer. Perhaps now that Arizona has taken this step, it can also take Bishop Desmond Tutu’s advice and use the “opportunity to create a new model for dealing with the pitfalls, and help the nation as a whole find its way through the problems of illegal immigration.” A step in this direction might just remind all 50 states of the call sent out to the world: “Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!”