Illegal Immigrants and the Arizona Law
Anyone who knows how the police actually work would not be afraid of the Arizona law.


If Arizona’s new immigration law survives the many court challenges now facing it — a dubious prospect, given the Ninth Circuit’s eventual role in the process — it will take effect on July 29. And on that day, as police officers settle into their Crown Victorias, crank up the air conditioning, and drive out onto the streets of their cities and towns, they will be asking themselves, “What am I supposed to do now?”

The law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer is straightforward in its obligations on police officers: They are to make a reasonable effort to investigate the immigration status of persons who have been lawfully stopped and about whom there is reasonable suspicion to believe they are “unlawfully present in the United States.” This vests too much discretion and authority in local police officers, say the law’s critics, ignoring the fact that police officers exercise such discretion and authority virtually every time they step out of their cars, and in the vast majority of cases do so properly.

How will the police, ask the critics, determine what is “reasonable suspicion” to believe someone might be an illegal immigrant? On this I can speak from long experience, as I have spent a good part of my police career working in neighborhoods of Los Angeles where illegal immigrants can be found in abundance (there are many such neighborhoods here). As police officers develop on the job they learn to recognize certain cultural patterns, perhaps the most important of which are those displayed by men who have spent time in prison. Such men almost invariably adopt manners of dress, speech, and behavior that a seasoned police officer can recognize instantly — and he had better, if he wants to end his day in the same condition he started it. Even if you were to dress an ex-con in a Brooks Brothers suit, give him a hundred-dollar haircut, and place him among a group of men similarly dressed and coiffed, any cop who had been around a while would have no trouble at all picking him out of the crowd.

This is not to equate illegal immigrants with ex-convicts, but the concept of noticing cultural cues nonetheless applies. Regardless of a given person’s ethnicity, there are mannerisms and behaviors that are more common on one side of our southern border than the other, and the degree to which a person displays these mannerisms and behaviors offers the careful observer an idea of which side of that border the person is from and how long it has been since he crossed it.

No, this isn’t foolproof. There are, after all, differences between an educated, middle-class Mexican from Monterey or Guadalajara — one who, say, has overstayed a student visa — and a high-school dropout from a farm in Michoacán or Durango. The former is more likely to be assimilated into American culture than the latter, and is less likely to arouse the curiosity of the police. But then, if the illegal-immigrant population were limited to those who are educated, middle-class, and assimilated, surely the issue wouldn’t have engendered the Arizona law in the first place.

Even if we allow that police officers are able in most cases to identify an illegal immigrant, critics of the Arizona law would nonetheless raise the bugaboo of “racial profiling.” Hispanics will be unduly harassed, say the critics, as in President Obama’s flawed scenario of the family that went out for ice cream and was caught without their “papers.”