When she heard today’s Supreme Court decision upholding the “reasonable suspicion” (a k a “papers, please”) provisions of Arizona’s SB-1070, immigrant rights activist Isabel Garcia saw the Arizonification of the nation. “We’ve been fighting local ‘reasonable suspicion’ laws here in Arizona for decades,” said Garcia, a Pima County public defender and co-chair of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, an organization dedicated to defending immigrants and documenting immigrant deaths in the desert. “Here in Tucson ‘reasonable suspicion’ has proven a very weak and vague legal standard that is responsible for lots of family separations, enormous suffering—and death. Now, SB-1070 is going to haunt those of you in the rest of the country.”
President Obama’s allies in the immigrant rights movement view the Supreme Court decision to strike down three of the four provisions of SB-1070 as a reason to celebrate and to rally voters in the 2012 presidential race. Garcia does not. In fact, she and many immigration activists throughout the country view the Court’s decision as a threat to the civil liberties of immigrants and non-immigrants alike. They fear how the decision makes “Juan Crow” the law of the land.
“The Supreme Court is making it possible for hundreds of thousands of police officers throughout the country to racially profile millions of people,” Garcia stated during a phone interview. “We have not seen the potential for this scale of racial profiling and discrimination since Jim Crow.”
The Court’s decision comes amidst immigration wars between the GOP and the Democrats in which truth about immigration policy is the first casualty. Garcia notes with deep concern, for example, how SB-1070 and the “get tough” responses of both parties come at a time when immigration to the United States is at an all-time low. “Nobody’s talking about how Jan Brewer and the Republicans pushed this law when crime and immigration at the border had dropped radically” said Garcia, adding, “And nobody is telling us that the Obama administration has 23,000 [Border Patrol] agents committed to Arizona and how they don’t have much of a job to do in stopping migration flows because it’s at historic lows.”
Also lost in the reporting on the Supreme Court decision, says Garcia, is any sense of what she and others consider the central political fact about Arizona’s racial profiling law: both Democrats and Republicans, both Barack Obama and Jan Brewer, made the ‘papers, please’ provisions of SB-1070 possible. In other words, both parties promoted, protected and enforced Arizona’s and other local versions of Juan Crow.
Prior to Arizona’s passage of SB-1070, the Obama administration continued and expanded George W. Bush–era immigration policies that were, until today, the most massive racial profiling programs to date. Known respectively as “287g” and “Secure Communities,” these controversial federal programs force local law enforcement agencies and officials to collaborate with federal immigration officials. (Ironically, the Supreme Court decision comes on the same day the Obama administration formally announced the long-expected phasing out of 278g.) Federal provisions expanding Secure Communities into every jurisdiction in the country by 2013 mean that every local cop in the nation has or will become a de facto immigration officer.
Obama’s decision to continue and expand these programs (previously, candidate Obama promised to abolish or fundamentally soften them) gave Arizona officials like Brewer and über-Sheriff Joe Arpaio the green light to expand their anti-immigrant crusade. So in suing Arizona and in going to the Supreme Court, President Obama was essentially suing the very policies he could have ended by abolishing programs he promised to abolish when he was candidate Obama.
As with the racial profiling provisions of SB-1070, the racial profiling at the heart of 287g and SCOMM has been the subject of class-action law suits by the ACLU and others, who have documented widespread SB 1070–like racial profiling by Border Patrol agents, Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers and other federal authorities. Garcia and Derechos Humanos’ decade-long fight against reasonable suspicion component of Tucson’s Juan Crow laws has yielded similar findings, similar stories with grave consequences.
While President Obama was declaring that he was “pleased” that the Court struck down three provisions of the law and while Arizona Governor Jan Brewer was claiming “victory” on the reasonable suspicion provision, Isabel Garcia told me the story of Rene Torres. “Rene Torres was an honorable man; he had five US citizen children; he paid his taxes; he lived in Arizona for many years—but he had no papers,” she said.
“In the first months of the Obama administration, Rene was racially profiled by Tucson sheriffs, handed over to ICE and then deported. He then died in the desert when he tried to come back to be with his five children and his wife. He died because local laws allowed local sheriffs to racially profile him,” said Garcia. “I fear that the Supreme Court has just made it easier for people across the country to suffer or even die like this. This is why we must continue to fight and defeat this racist law.”