A Lesson from Arizona: Costs of Racial Profiling Come Home to Roost

A couple years ago, many news stories about immigration had some connection to Arizona: the infamous and ill-considered “show-me-your-papers” law, known by its bill number, S.B. 1070; the vigilante groups that patrolled the border in the hope of preventing illegal immigration; and the anti-immigrant activism of Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who rose to national prominence – some would say infamy – based on his reputation for being tough on undocumented immigrants, and anyone who might be mistaken for one.

At the time, critics accused the Maricopa County Sheriff’s office of racial profiling for singling out “Latino-looking” people for especially harsh treatment. This did not go down well in the court of public opinion – nor in the courts of law – and Arizona has lost several million dollars in tourism and convention revenue as a result. The economic losses continue to mount, as the Arizona Capitol Times reports:

“Taxpayers in metropolitan Phoenix are expected to pay out an estimated $21 million over the next year and a half for changes ordered in responses to a court ruling that found an Arizona sheriff’s office racially profiled Latinos in its regular traffic and immigration patrols.” [See Arizona Racial Profiling Costs Taxpayers $21M, by Jacques Billeaud, Associated Press, Arizona Capitol Times, 03.Jan.2014.]

It’s a lesson worth remembering as the immigration debate cranks up again in Washington: scapegoating immigrants – or people perceived to “look like” them – is not just wrong, it’s an absurd basis for public policy. If this is not obvious from Arizona’s example, perhaps we should consider the situation of immigrants in France, as outlined in a recent New York Times article. [See Does Immigration Mean ‘France is Over’?, by Justin E.H. Smith, New York Times, 05.Jan.2014.

Professor Smith’s article is an instructive ride through some uncomfortable terrain, along the border between personal identity and national identity, and though he’s talking about France, it all has a familiar ring to it. He concludes: “…what I hear in the streets [about immigrants] is really only an echo of the rhetoric of politicians and purported intellectuals, who have found it convenient to blame the most powerless members of French society for the instability of the present and the uncertainty of the future.” Surely, we know better than to do this here?

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