Racial Profiling: Impact Missing in the News

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Teresa Puente
February 16, 2011

A recent proliferation of states enacting immigration legislation—some 1,400 bills were introduced in 2010—sparked a flurry of political coverage, much of it noting how politicians backing the measures risked alienating Latino voters. Yet scant attention has been placed on how such laws will impact Latino and immigrant communities, particularly the likely increase in racial and ethnic profiling.

Anybody who looks or sounds foreign, whether they are undocumented or not, could be targeted by law enforcement officials, says Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project at the Southern Poverty Law Center.

“S.B. 1070 has the effect of making every person in Arizona who has brown skin and looks Latino a criminal suspect. That is not the America that was foreseen by the framers of the Constitution,” Potok says.

But he says that the media has not paid enough attention to how these laws will impact U.S. citizen Latinos and the ramifications they have on race relations in these communities.

“What’s developing out there is not just racial profiling by police but a real stirring of the pot of racial hatred,” Potok says.

Over the past five years, immigration-related laws have risen dramatically. In 2005, states passed 39 such laws. Last year, 46 states plus the District of Columbia enacted immigration laws—a total of 208, including Arizona’s controversial S.B. 1070. States adopted another 138 immigration-related resolutions. The four states that didn’t attempt to regulate immigration—Montana, Nevada, North Dakota and Texas—were not in legislative session last year, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.

States’ “patchwork” of legislation could be neutralized if Congress passes comprehensive immigration reform, says Kevin R. Johnson, Dean at UC Davis School of Law and Mabie-Apallas Professor of Public Interest Law and Chicana/o Studies.

“We have an immigration system that is broken,” Johnson says. “One of  the reasons the debate is so passionate and volatile is because issues of race and class are so deeply embedded in our discussion about immigration and immigration enforcement.”

Few media outlets have explored racial profiling of Latinos in depth. A recent exception was ABC reporter John Quiñones’ segment on the program “What Would You Do?” Working undercover, Quiñones wanted to find out how people in a popular Arizona restaurant would react when security guards (actors hired by ABC) harassed him and other Latinos to prove they were citizens.

An interesting paradox revealed in Quiñones’ segment was that some of the white passersby who intervened on behalf of profiled Latinos were supporters of S.B. 1070. Experiencing first-hand how the law affected individuals made them reflect more deeply on the ramifications of Arizona’s new immigration policy.

Quiñones, who is Latino, is one of only a few in the mainstream media to document how statewide immigration laws could result in racial profiling.

Carmen Cornejo, an activist who supports efforts to help undocumented youth become citizens, is concerned that Latinos who are legal immigrants or U.S. citizens will be profiled more frequently. Cornejo was born in Mexico but is now a U.S. citizen. Her two teenage sons were born in the U.S.

Even before S.B. 1070, Cornejo says one of her sons had been stopped by police for “being brown” in the Phoenix suburb where her family lives. He normally wears his private school uniform but that day he didn’t because school was out.

Later, when Cornejo called police to complain, they told her they were looking for a robbery suspect and there had been reports of a Hispanic man walking in the neighborhood from few days before.

Mainstream media coverage of immigration is framed as a legal or illegal, says Cornejo. “It’s not so black and white. There are a lot of grey areas. I am a gray area. I have an accent so my citizenship could be questioned.”

In New Mexico, Gov. Susana Martinez, a Latina, ignited fears over racial profiling when she recently signed an executive order requiring state law enforcement to check the immigration status of those arrested for criminal offenses. This reverses a policy of her predecessor, Gov. Bill Richardson, also a Latino.

According to Micah McCoy of the ACLU in New Mexico, there is “very deep concern” about whether the heavy racial profiling of Latinos of the style practiced by the notorious Sheriff Joe Arpaio from Maricopa County, Ariz., will spread. Arpaio is currently under investigation by the U.S. Justice Department, according to the Arizona Republic.

Also, McCoy notes that strident anti-illegal immigration laws “erode the trust in law enforcement,” making it less likely that immigrants will report crimes. (Martinez included in her executive order a condition excusing crime victims from being questioned about their immigration status.)

In the Midwest, some law enforcement authorities have found that immigrants are not coming forward to report crimes, says Fred Tsao, policy director, Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights. “They are afraid. They don’t want to expose themselves to inquiries about their (legal) status,” Tsao says.

The psychological impact of these immigration laws is below the radar and “the media is not paying attention,” he adds.

Here are tips that newsmakers can use when reporting on immigration issues:

Analyze the impact of racial profiling on the Latino and immigrant communities. In Irving, Texas, profiling led to a disproportionate spike in the number of Latinos arrested for misdemeanors, according to research from the University of California Berkeley Law School. 

Check arrest records to see whether there is an increase in arrests of Latinos or immigrants. According to an ACLU spokesman, some children are scared of Border Patrol cars and law enforcement figures. “They are afraid to go to school,” ACLU spokesman McCoy says.

Find out if there is a decrease in reported crimes in immigrant communities. Are immigrant witnesses less likely to come forward? Interview local law enforcement to see if there has been a decrease in crime in immigrant neighborhoods or if witnesses are reluctant to come forward.

Profile divided families where some members are undocumented and others are U.S. citizens. U.S.-born children of undocumented parents are in a precarious situation. What happens to them if their parents are deported? Babies of undocumented immigrants also are now the targets of a proposed law in Arizona that would deny them citizenship.

Examine the impact these laws have on legal permanent residents. Do they feel it is a burden to carry proof they are in the United States with documentation? Do they feel they are likely to be targets because they have accents or look different? Interview people who are legal residents about the impact of such laws on them.

Investigate how these laws impact race relations in a community. Potok gave an example from Farmers Branch, Texas, which in 2007 passed a law (now on hold) to prevent landlords from renting to undocumented immigrants. A local librarian reported that white residents were upset the library was too welcoming to people that spoke languages other than English. And some white library patrons interrogated Latinos about their immigration status.

Try these resources

Carmen Cornejo, CADENA

National Conference of State Legislatures
2010 Immigration-Related Laws and Resolutions in the States

Southern Poverty Law Center
Mark Potok, director of the Intelligence Project
Report: Under Siege: Life for Low Income Latinos in the South


Micah McCoy, communications specialist
ACLU New Mexico

Fred Tsao, policy director
Illinois Coalition for Immigrant and Refugee Rights



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