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Is America Turning Into Racist, Right-Wing Arizona?

Has the Supreme Court made it possible for hundreds of thousands of police officers throughout the country to racially profile millions of people?


The following article first appeared in the Nation. For more great content from the Nation, sign up for their email newsletters here.

When she heard the Supreme Court decision upholding the “reasonable suspicion” (a k a “papers, please”) provisions of Arizona’s SB-1070, immigrant rights activist Isabel Garcia saw the Arizonification of the nation. “We’ve been fighting local ‘reasonable suspicion’ laws here in Arizona for decades,” said Garcia, a Pima County public defender and co-chair of Coalición de Derechos Humanos, an organization dedicated to defending immigrants and documenting immigrant deaths in the desert. “Here in Tucson ‘reasonable suspicion’ has proven a very weak and vague legal standard that is responsible for lots of family separations, enormous suffering -- and death. Now, SB-1070 is going to haunt those of you in the rest of the country.”

President Obama’s allies in the immigrant rights movement view the Supreme Court decision to strike down three of the four provisions of SB-1070 as a reason to celebrate and to rally voters in the 2012 presidential race. Garcia does not. In fact, she and many immigration activists throughout the country view the Court’s decision as a threat to the civil liberties of immigrants and non-immigrants alike. They fear how the decision makes “Juan Crow” the law of the land.

“The Supreme Court is making it possible for hundreds of thousands of police officers throughout the country to racially profile millions of people,” Garcia stated during a phone interview. “We have not seen the potential for this scale of racial profiling and discrimination since Jim Crow.”

The Court’s decision comes amidst immigration wars between the GOP and the Democrats in which truth about immigration policy is the first casualty. Garcia notes with deep concern, for example, how SB-1070 and the “get tough” responses of both parties come at a time when immigration to the United States is at an all-time low. “Nobody’s talking about how Jan Brewer and the Republicans pushed this law when crime and immigration at the border had dropped radically” said Garcia, adding, “And nobody is telling us that the Obama administration has 23,000 [Border Patrol] agents committed to Arizona and how they don’t have much of a job to do in stopping migration flows because it’s at historic lows.”

Also lost in the reporting on the Supreme Court decision, says Garcia, is any sense of what she and others consider the central political fact about Arizona’s racial profiling law: Both Democrats and Republicans, both Barack Obama and Jan Brewer, made the ‘papers, please’ provisions of SB-1070 possible. In other words, both parties promoted, protected and enforced Arizona’s and other local versions of Juan Crow.

Prior to Arizona’s passage of SB-1070, the Obama administration continued and expanded George W. Bush-era immigration policies that were, until today, the most massive racial profiling programs to date. Known respectively as “287g” and “Secure Communities,” these controversial federal programs force local law enforcement agencies and officials to collaborate with federal immigration officials. (Ironically, the Supreme Court decision comes on the same day the Obama administration formally announced the long-expected phasing out of 278g.) Federal provisions expanding Secure Communities into every jurisdiction in the country by 2013 mean that every local cop in the nation has or will become a de facto immigration officer.

Obama’s decision to continue and expand these programs (previously, candidate Obama promised to abolish or fundamentally soften them) gave Arizona officials like Brewer and über-Sheriff Joe Arpaio the green light to expand their anti-immigrant crusade. So in suing Arizona and in going to the Supreme Court, President Obama was essentially suing the very policies he could have ended by abolishing programs he promised to abolish when he was candidate Obama.

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