I can't count the times over the last week I've heard reporters and commentators say that the law simply allows police officers who have already stopped someone for a traffic violation or some other crime to require the person to produce proof of legal residence if the officer has "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an illegal immigrant. But the actual wording of the law says something quite different. It gives any state, county or local government official the right to demand documents from persons suspected of being illegal immigrants:
"For any lawful contact made by a law enforcement official or agency of the state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state where reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person."
Apparently, immigrants aren't the only ones we should encourage to learn English; Arizona lawmakers should learn English, too. The syntax and grammar are so convoluted, it's difficult to parse the meaning.
The term "lawful contact," while not defined in the law, has been interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court in the broadest terms. In Terry v. Ohio, the court made clear that police officers have wide latitude to approach anyone and question them on suspicion of a crime -- which the Arizona law now defines as "reasonable suspicion" that the person is an illegal immigrant.
The law says race or national origin can't be the sole factor constituting "reasonable suspicion," but it doesn't prohibit race or ethnicity from being (ital) one (ital) factor. As we've seen on affirmative action -- where race is claimed to be only one factor in giving preference to minority applicants -- it is, unfortunately, almost always the deciding factor. And the same thing will happen here.
The law will not likely pass constitutional muster, but the harm to the 1.5 million Hispanics who are legal residents of Arizona will not easily be forgotten. And politicians who decide to jump on this bandwagon are in for a bumpy ride.
Linda Chavez is chairman of the Center for Equal Opportunity and author of Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics .
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