Discriminatory Arizona Law Measures Nation's Racial Sensibilities

Written by: Karla McKanders

Image from Stock XCHNGIf Arizona’s passing the immigration law on Friday is a measure of our nation’s racial sensibilities, our country has a long way to go.  Our country has a long history of racial discrimination towards minority groups, including Latino immigrants. In the 1800s, Congress passed the Chinese exclusion laws barring persons of  Chinese descent from immigrating to the United States and implementing forced labor for those who violated the laws. California instigated the passing of discriminatory and racist exclusion laws. In the early twentieth century, states also passed alien land laws which barred ownership of property by non-citizens. These laws were targeted at Japanese immigrants who, as non-whites were barred from becoming citizens. In 1965, in the wake of the Civil Rights Movement, the Immigration Act was passed which abolished all racial quotas and racial considerations from influencing whether a person could immigrate to the United States.

Image from Wikimedia

Our world is also all too familiar with the apartheid laws that excluded racial minorities in South Africa. In 1950, South Africa passed the Population Registration Act which formalized racial classifications and required all persons over eighteen to carry an identity card, specifying their racial group. All civil, political and economic rights were extended to persons based on the racial category in which they belonged. The Pass Laws required persons to produce a passport like document stating the person’s race. The penalty for failure to produce an identity card resulted in detention until the subject’s identity was verified.

These laws may seem like a thing of the past, however, on Friday, Arizona passed Senate Bill 1070.  This law permits police officers and other state agencies to identify, prosecute and attempt to deport undocumented immigrants. The law would allow the police to detain people they reasonably suspect are in the country without authorization and makes it a criminal offense for not carrying immigration documents. Residents can also sue cities if they believe the law is not being enforced. In addition, “[t]he law creates new immigration crimes and penalties inconsistent with those in federal law, asserts sweeping authority to detain and transport persons suspected of violating civil immigration laws and prohibits speech and other expressive activity by persons seeking work.” Arizona Governor Jan Brewer claims that the law is in reaction to the federal government’s unwillingness to pass comprehensive immigration legislation and that the states have to enact and enforce their own immigration laws.

Pursuant to Arizona’s new law, anyone who looks or sounds “foreign” will be targeted, as state and local officials lack training to identify undocumented immigrants. This will inevitably lead to racial profiling and discrimination, and arbitrary requests for persons to produce identity documents. If anti-immigrant laws, like the Arizona law, are allowed to stand they will reinforce divisive cultural norms that exclude Latinos from participating in society as full members, returning to the days when discriminatory laws forbade certain classes of people from owning land, running businesses or living in certain places.

Since 2007, states and localities have been passing anti-immigrant laws. State and localities should not be able to enact and enforce immigration laws. The Immigration and Nationality Act is a comprehensive law that is typically given supremacy over state anti-immigrant laws. The federalism and supremacy arguments are centered on the premise that states and localities, in enacting laws that target immigrants, are encroaching on an area that is subject to federal control. Generally, anti-immigrant laws are being challenged in state and federal courts on federal preemption grounds.  As scholars and advocates attempt to address the constitutionality and legality of state and local laws that target immigrants, we are just beginning to analyze the impact that the laws have on both documented and undocumented immigrant population’s civil and human rights.

So the question remains, how do we show strong dissent to the Arizona law, passed in the twenty-first century that is akin to past exclusionary laws and reinforces racial profiling? Would the civil disobedience and boycott methods that were used during the Civil Rights Movement send a strong message to Arizona that we disagree with a law that discriminates against Latinos and anyone who the police perceive to be foreign? Do racist and xenophobic groups within the United States take cues from their state and local legislators that discrimination against Latinos is acceptable and legal with the passage of Arizona like laws?

Many immigrant rights groups have taken various stances in opposition to the Arizona law.  Representative Raúl M. Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, called for a convention boycott of his state. In response to Arizona’s law, many groups have called for boycotts of the state of Arizona. For example, the American Immigration Lawyers Association cancelled its fall conference in Arizona. In addition, President Obama, stated that the Arizona law threatened “to undermine basic notions of fairness that we cherish as Americans, as well as the trust between police and our communities that is so crucial to keeping us safe.”

Immigration Law Scholar Kevin Johnson has stated that “[i]mmigration law offers a helpful gauge for measuring this nation’s racial sensibilities.” Certainly, the enactment of the Arizona law provides insight into our failure as a nation to remember the past treatment of racial minorities and prevent repeating divisive, discriminatory racial practices directed at minorities.