SB 1070 Author: “I’m a Civil Libertarian”!

Russell Pearce with white supremacist J.T. Ready

“As a civil libertarian… I don’t want a police state. I want a reason to do something.” That was SB 1070 author Russell Pearce at a Senate hearing on the controversial immigration law in Arizona. As an actual civil libertarian, I laughed when I heard his comments. SB 1070 is about as far from a civil libertarian law as possible. The law was written, not to stop illegal immigration, but as an all-out assault on the Hispanic community. If you don’t believe me, just read the law, which I’ve summarized here.

The law requires that police officers check immigration status during “any lawful contact” if “reasonable suspicion” exists that the individual is undocumented. What is reasonable suspicion? Well, according to the Arizona Police Training Manual, reasonable suspicion includes factors like “difficulty speaking English,” “dress,” locations where “unlawfully present aliens are known to congregate,” and “demeanor” including “unexplained nervousness” and “refusal to make eye contact.” What exactly does an undocumented immigrant dress like? What would constitute “unexplained nervousness”? Is there any doubt that Hispanics would be more nervous than non-Hispanics in such a situation?

Why might a legal resident be nervous? Consider that while the U.S. Constitution protects the rights of citizens from having to carry their papers — as in a police state — Arizona’s immigration law is a de facto “papers-please” law, which requires aliens to “carry an alien registration document” under fear of arrest. A local CBS News affiliate reported the case of an Arizona commercial truck driver’s detention, even before the law was technically supposed to take effect. Abdon who has some difficulty speaking English well was detained at a truck weight scale and asked for his papers, and despite handing over his driver’s license, he was taken to a federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement center and forced to show his birth certificate. Abdon isn’t alone — other Hispanic Americans report similar treatment in Arizona.

Nor is that the only problem with the law from a civil libertarian perspective. The law not only criminalizes entering Arizona without proper federal documentation, it also criminalizes “harboring,” “transporting” or “encouraging” undocumented immigrants to stay in Arizona, which makes the law essentially an all-out war on the Hispanic community. Hundreds of pastors and social workers who aid transport and harbor immigrants could be targeted by SB 1070, an issue the ACLU has raised in their lawsuit. But more importantly, millions of U.S. citizens who have Hispanic family members living without documents in the U.S. could be targeted.

Other provisions empower law enforcement to stop any vehicle if the officer has “reasonable suspicion” to believe it holds an undocumented worker — again, “dress,” “demeanor,” and “location” apply. Law enforcement can also seize the vehicle if the driver is “transporting” an undocumented alien, even if that alien is a child, and the driver is an American citizen. Moreover, the creation of a Gang and Immigration Enforcement Team to raid Hispanic neighborhoods where “immigrants are known to congregate for work” is an advertisement to Hispanics to stay away from law enforcement at all costs. It is likely that thousands of cases of domestic violence and even much worse crimes like rape go unreported out of fear that a family member or even the victim will be deported.

The “most anti-immigrant law in U.S. history” lives up to his name. Its apologists are openly xenophobic, white supremacist sympathizers like Pearce who promulgate fears about immigrant terrorists and “beheadings in the desert.” But if their concern was only about immigrant criminals, SB 1070 would only require police to check the immigration status after a lawful arrest — it doesn’t because the authors knew that such a provision would result in very, very few arrests, since immigrants actually have much lower rates of criminality than natives.

Pearce might not have wanted to create a police state when he wrote SB 1070, but he has. The phrase “civil libertarian” may forever be tarnished by so-called libertarians who defend such laws. This might explain why former-Obama advisor Van Jones thought libertarians were “anti-immigrant bigots” because some who speak in our name actually are.

Read the law!