After signing the new law requiring police to check out people who may be illegal immigrants, Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer was asked how the cops are supposed to know when someone should be screened. "I don't know," she replied. "I do not know what an illegal immigrant looks like."
No kidding. But she has a lot of company in her ignorance. When I called University of Arizona law professor Marc Miller and told him I wasn't sure what some of the law's provisions mean, he replied, "Neither is anyone else on the planet." We will find out what it means after it takes effect, not before.
The law says cops must inquire anytime "reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States." Since most of the state's illegal immigrants are Latinos, the natural impulse of police may be to interrogate every Latino with whom they cross paths.?
Critics complain that approach would be racist. It would probably be illegal. In any case, Brewer says she won't allow it.
Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, however, sees no problem: "Ten guys in a trunk. I would think that's reasonable suspicion." Well, yes. But if cops can ask for evidence of legal status only when they find people secreted in cargo compartments, they will not be catching many interlopers.
The worst-case scenario is that Hispanics will face possible police harassment anytime they venture out of the house. Not to worry, says Kris Kobach, a law professor at the University of Missouri-Kansas City who helped draft the text.
He told The Washington Examiner that cops can ask for immigration information only when they have "lawful contact" with someone -- when "the officer is already engaged in some detention of an individual because he's violated some other law."
In fact, the law doesn't define the crucial term. One of the dictionary definitions of "contact" is "immediate proximity," which suggests that anytime a possible illegal immigrant comes in sight of a cop, the cop has a legal duty to check her papers.
Law professor Miller says "lawful contact" could also mean any normal interaction a cop has with ordinary people. If a Hispanic asks a patrolman for directions, she could expose herself to immigration questions. If an officer walks up to someone and starts a conversation without detaining him -- something police are allowed to do -- he may have established "lawful contact."