Eight years ago, Arizona tried to legalize racial profiling. SB-1070, known colloquially as the “Show Me Your Papers” law, merely codified the bigotry that disgraced Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio had been putting into practice. It permitted officers to question a person’s immigration status based on their appearance. The law was defanged in the courts, but Arpaio’s star rose in Republican circles. President Trump endorsed his practices when he pardoned him last year for a contempt-of-court misdemeanor conviction, which Arpaio received because he refused to obey a federal order to stop racially profiling people.
Arpaio, who was most recently running for U.S. Senate, was crushed Tuesday in Arizona’s Republican primary. But Arpaio doesn’t need to go to Washington; Trump is already doing his work. One day after Arpaio’s defeat, the Washington Post reported that the Trump administration is nationalizing SB-1070 in practice if not in law, accusing “hundreds, and possibly thousands, of Hispanics along the border of using fraudulent birth certificates since they were babies.”
This is birtherism for non-presidents, and it is a new low for this president.
Some citizens who try to cross back into the U.S. from Mexico are being marooned at the border, their passports revoked at a whim. Passport applicants of Hispanic descent are being jailed and even threatened with deportation. The justification that the government has offered is feeble, at best: Because there are isolated cases of midwives along the Texas-Mexico border falsifying U.S. birth certificates for children actually born in Mexico from the 1950s through the 1990s, it is up to the Trump administration, apparently, to catch all these nefarious ex-baby criminals. How? Discriminate, indiscriminately. Everyone with the wrong melanin or the wrong name could be a suspect.
It’s worth revisiting the two core truths of racial profiling: It’s illegal, and it doesn’t work. The stop-and-frisk policies that police departments nationwide have used under the pretense of crime prevention disproportionately target black and brown people, while at times letting white offenders off the hook. Choosing to stop, harass or subject a person to criminal justice penalties based on race or ethnicity violates the Fourth Amendment’s personal protections against unreasonable search and seizure.
There have been instances of Immigrations and Customs Enforcement (ICE) wrongly detaining and incarcerating American citizens of color — more than 1,480 since 2012. This new initiative is in line with the Trump administration’s attempts to add a citizenship question to the Census and its new denaturalization campaign to catch those it believes have cheated the immigration process. One military veteran, a citizen who will face deportation proceedings in 2019, told the Post that the State Department requested all manner of obscure documentation when he tried to renew his passport earlier this year — things like evidence of his mother’s prenatal care, his baptismal certificate, and housing rental agreements from when he was a baby. I doubt that most Americans could produce most or any of those documents.
This isn’t about law enforcement. In fact, it’s foolish to wonder whether Trump is truly worried about crime.
We have seen too much evidence of his inclination for using the perception of criminality as a political tool. His administration’s stance on immigration, including its noxious family separation policy, is designed to not only make criminal behavior synonymous with Hispanic and Latino ethnicity, but to also exempt whiteness.
Trump showed us who he was long ago: He remains the man who pardons a racist torturer like Arpaio while doggedly ignoring the evidence exonerating the Central Park Five. This isn’t hard to figure out.
Those who can assume their own safety under the Trump administration must take action. Too often, the security of whiteness permits talk of “slippery slopes” in our politics that warns of consequences that are not dire at all. Most often, we hear these warnings about political correctness, in which demands for common propriety and exhibitions of respect are depicted alternately as fascist and feminine (and therefore, soft or weak). The next time we hear woeful warnings about where we’re headed, we should take note of how far we have already fallen, and recognize that we have not yet hit bottom.