By Kent Willis, Executive Director
Arizona’s new anti-immigrant law has the nation’s attention, and it is heavily divided.  On one hand, Arizona’s political leaders have hailed the measure as ushering in a new era in which states will finally be taking immigration matters into their own hands.  On the other, the ACLU and several allied organizations have filed a lawsuit claiming that the Arizona law unconstitutionally usurps federal immigration authority and attempts to legalize racial profiling.
The new law, which requires police to obtain immigration papers from anyone they stop whenever they suspect them of being unlawfully present in the country, is indeed a surefire recipe for racial profiling.  After all, who will police suspect as being unlawfully present in Arizona other than Latinos?
As to whether it usurps federal constitutional authority, that’s a complicated matter that the courts will have to decide.  The Justice Department, which filed its own lawsuit last week, seems to think it does, adding heft to the ACLU’s argument.  (Read more about the ACLU’s efforts to challenge Arizona’s law.)
As this builds into a major court battle that could determine the direction of state immigration policies for years to come, our advice to lawmakers in Virginia is to wait and see.  Of course, we hope the Arizona law will be struck down, thus removing the temptation for Virginia’s legislators to eat from Arizona’s plate during the 2011 legislative session.
If not, we hope that cool heads will continue to prevail in the Virginia General Assembly, where the vast majority of anti-immigrant bills have been rejected in recent years.
Most public officials in Virginia seem to understand that, constitutional or not, a law like Arizona’s is fraught with implementation problems.  In addition to the racial profiling lawsuits it will inevitably elicit, it diverts state and local law enforcement officials from fighting serious crimes and transforms them into immigration officials.  In times when money is short, that’s not an easy sell.
It also sends a hostile message to an entire class of people because some of the members of the class are unlawfully present.  That kind of stereotyping is not just illegal, it also strains relationships between communities, dividing them along racial lines, and it discourages the kind of effective communications between police and citizens considered essential to fighting crime.
In fact, when Prince William County came up with a similar proposal several years ago, the police chief opposed it for that very reason.  In testimony before the Board of Supervisors he said that if the purpose of the proposal was to reduce crime by ferreting out unlawfully present persons, it would probably accomplish the opposite.  In the end, he said, the proposal would undermine the trust established between the police and the Latino community that the police depend on to investigate and solve crimes.
Now Prince William is at it again, in a way.  Shortly after the Arizona law was signed, Prince William County Board of Supervisors Chairman Corey Stewart loudly launched his “Rule of Law Campaign,” which is designed to create a movement in Virginia to push lawmakers into enacting an Arizona-style law.
Virginia residents who want to keep Arizona out of our state will have to form a more effective lobby.  They will need to educate themselves about the various laws and polices that dictate how immigration law is implemented, educate others, and mobilize.  Sitting still will not be enough, especially if there is a dedicated opposition, like Mr. Stewart’s, with a single purpose in mind.
Along these lines I’d like to invite you to join Jorge Figueredo, our Director of Racial Justice and Immigrants’ Rights, at a public forum on racial profiling this Saturday in Falls Church, 3-6 p.m.  Jorge and others will be addressing the growing problems related to immigrants’ rights and racial profiling in Virginia.
Know Your Rights: Northern Virginia Forum to Stop Racial Profiling Saturday, July 17, 2010 3:00-6:00 p.m. Dar Al Hijra Mosque 3159 Row Street Falls Church, VA 22044
(View flyer)
Free and open to the public. No registration required.
Sponsors: ACLU of Virginia, American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee-DC, Dar Al Hijra, Interfaith Immigration Coalition, Legal Aid Justice Center, Migrant Heritage Commission, Network of Arab-American Professionals, Rights Working Group, Tenants and Workers United, Virginia Asian-Pacific-American Roundtable, Virginia Coalition of Latino Organizations, and Virginia Organizing Project.