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Racial profiling: NW Arkansas studied


For the last five months, the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, or MALDEF, has been hearing about and investigating complaints of civil rights violations connected with local police involvement in immigration enforcement in Northwest Arkansas.

A recent visit to the area coincided with the opening of the new Immigration and Naturalization Service office for detention and deportation in Fayetteville. News articles highlighted the close collaboration between local police forces and the INS, but there also have been community concerns about racial profiling against Latinos.

The response of local police and INS officials effectively masks from the public the disturbing underside of local police collaboration with immigration enforcement.

The true nature of that collaboration is to involve local police in ordinary immigration enforcement, which detracts from their primary mission--the prevention of serious crime. Because immigration enforcement is not within the proper scope of authority of local police, efforts contrived to effectively engage local law enforcement in the same have may have jeopardized civil rights.

Moreover, this entanglement and confusion of law enforcement roles compromises the mission of local police and undermines community confidence and trust.

Some complaints deal with the initial stops and approaching of Latinos for investigation. We have had reports of individuals who are approached and interrogated while sitting in or standing next to their car in a parking lot or stopped because their music was too loud.

However, since police can almost always find a pretext to make a stop or investigatory detention, the practice of racial profiling is harder to challenge on these data. Some larger cities have addressed the issue by instituting projects of objective data collection on stops and investigations to determine whether Latinos are disproportionately targeted.

More flagrant and disturbing is the continual shift in focus of any police encounter with Latinos into a fishing expedition for possible evidence of undocumented immigration status. In this regard, Latinos are treated differently from other groups, suggesting that it is their Hispanic appearance or Spanish accent that targets them for excessive scrutiny and investigation of "documentation."

It is unconstitutional to subject an individual to investigation solely on the basis of his or her racial or ethnic identity, and any search or seizure on that basis would likewise be unreasonable under the Fourth Amendment.

Nevertheless, only Latinos are routinely asked by local police to show evidence of possession of a valid immigration document or Social Security number. Some have been subjected to searches of their persons and personal effects for such evidence. If police find any suspicious evidence of invalid documents, individuals are arrested and charged with forgery. It doesn't matter that most of those charges are dismissed or dropped, and would not likely hold up in court, because the constitutionally suspect practice appears to be simply a means of catching individuals and turning them over to the INS.

Rogers Police Chief Tim Keck, whose jurisdiction is the source of most of the allegations, and INS agent Rod Reyes would have us believe that the majority of individuals who fall victims of this trawling exercise are serious criminals and threats to public safety, apprehended after serious, particularized investigations. Keck lumps them together with drug traffickers and murderers.

This immigrant-bashing and scapegoating simply does not correspond to the information in the majority of cases. The reports and allegations of individuals are alarming. A woman who called the police for protection from her abusive husband was investigated as to her immigration status, arrested and turned over to INS. A Latino man seen driving two different cars on the same day (he took one into the shop for repair) was stopped and asked for his immigration papers. Police have taken to approaching Latino men drinking beer in their own yards, ostensibly to enforce misdemeanor statutes against public intoxication, and subjected them to searches for documents.

Latino motorists have had their wallets ripped from their hands by police to search for Social Security cards or immigration documents. Latinos in the local "low rider" club have been harassed and asked about their national origin.

The vast majority of these Latino individuals, regardless of their alien status, are hard-working taxpayers playing a vital role in the region's economic and cultural dynamism. Not your typical drug trafficker or murderer.

Reports of this nature are not heard, for example, in San Antonio, my regional home base. Around the country, other cities with significant Latino and immigrant populations have learned that immigration enforcement and local law enforcement do not mix.

The entanglement of local law enforcement with immigration enforcement has led to apparent civil rights abuses and potential liability of municipalities. Immigration enforcement by local police, even under the guise of enforcement of separate criminal statutes, compromises and detracts from the true mission of local police of ensuring public safety, and worst of all, it undermines public trust and confidence.

This confusion of roles leads the affected community to view local police as immigration enforcers rather than partners in the fight against crime. This discourages people from reporting crimes and cooperating with local law enforcement efforts on other matters. Some police forces have actively resisted INS efforts to involve them in immigration enforcement to pursue their objectives and priorities in community policing.

The type of enforcement scheme implemented in Northwest Arkansas does not even seem to fit Immigration and Naturalization Service's own priorities, which tend to focus on convicted criminal aliens, individuals with prior deportation orders, repeat offenders and alien smugglers. There are always competing policies at stake in the enforcement of any law.

Here, there is no need to compromise the distinct goals and objectives of law enforcement agencies as long as their roles are not confused. Each agency can pursue its objectives and priorities in a way that minimizes any deleterious effect on the other's public policy rationale, by maintaining the fundamental distinction and separation of their roles.

While cooperation on some matters may be desirable, the INS should not turn police into their local enforcement office. Local police should remain focused on the public safety needs of the community they serve and leave federal immigration enforcement to the INS. In no instance should the constitutional rights of individuals and groups be sacrificed to produce impressive numbers of arrests and/or deportations.

The concerned citizens I've heard from in Rogers represent a wide spectrum of the community. Embodied in their concerns is a very simple principle of justice and fairness, which the community is struggling to achieve as it absorbs new immigrants.

We are all diminished when we fail to achieve the ideals for which we stand, but we become more as a people in the measure we reach for those same ideals. MALDEF looks forward to sharing that struggle with the people of Northwest Arkansas.

Joe Berra is a staff attorney in Rogers for the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund, a national civil rights organization dedicated to promoting and defending the civil rights of Latinos.

This article was published on Saturday, October 21, 2000