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Despite succeeding in court, "show me your papers" has failed in the real world

Posted by Carol Rose, On Liberty  June 25, 2012 12:04 PM

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Staff attorney Laura Rótolo and legal director Matthew Segal of the ACLU of Massachusetts wrote this guest blog.

Today the Supreme Court struck down several provisions of Arizona's controversial anti-immigrant law, but it upheld the infamous "show me your papers" provision. Although the Court's decision to uphold that provision is a blow against civil rights and liberties, the "show me your papers" provision is likely to be relegated to the dustbin of history anyway.

The "show me your papers" provision requires Arizona police officers to investigate a person's immigration status whenever there is "reasonable suspicion" to believe that the person has violated immigration law. In today's decision, the Supreme Court held that, though states like Arizona can't pursue immigration policies that "undermine federal law," they can require police officers to run immigration checks. The Court did not decide whether the "show me your papers" provision unconstitutionally promotes racial discrimination and profiling, and the ACLU will continue to fight in court to have the provision struck down on that basis.

But, no matter what happens to the "show me your papers" provision in court, the policy behind it is in tatters.

Despite the example set by Arizona--or perhaps because of it--the tide is turning against anti-immigrant laws and policies. Mississippi recently rejected a similar bill after the state's police, sheriffs, businesses, and local governments spoke out in opposition. And on June 15, the Obama administration announced that it would begin granting work permits to undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as minors and have since led law-abiding lives.

The tide is turning because "show me your papers" laws are bad for everyone: they promote racial profiling, harm business, and undermine community policing.

First, requiring police to conduct immigration investigations is a recipe for racial profiling. Police will inevitably use race to decide whether to initiate those investigations because there is no reliable way to guess someone's immigration status. For example, after Alabama enacted a "show me your papers" law, all but 10 of the first 141 people arrested in Tuscaloosa for failing to have drivers' licenses were black or Latino.

Second, such measures are bad for business. In Arizona and Alabama, the new show-me-your-papers regimes have been economically disastrous. In contrast, new research shows that, "in the regions where immigrants have settled in the past two decades, crime has gone down, cities have grown, poor urban neighborhoods have been rebuilt, and small towns that were once on life support are springing back." The Obama administration's new approach to work permits recognizes this reality: immigrants make this country better, not worse.

Third, "show me your papers" laws damage relationships between police and immigrant communities. Such laws cause immigrants and people of color to stop trusting local police, stop calling for help, and stop cooperating to fight crime. That is why an association of police chiefs from major cities told the Supreme Court that "the Arizona law would poison any culture of cooperation in communities most afflicted with crime."

These laws are also fundamentally anti-American. They target a vulnerable group and make us all worse off. In contrast, the administration's new policy--which rewards people who are contributing to this country--is true to our country's highest ideals.

Anti-immigrant laws and policies modeled after Arizona's SB 1070 are a failed experiment. Today the Supreme Court allowed Arizona to continue this experiment--at least for the moment--but it is unclear why any other state would do so.

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
The author is solely responsible for the content.

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About the author

Carol Rose is executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts. A lawyer and journalist, Carol has spent her career working for and writing about human rights and civil liberties, both in the United States and abroad. More »

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