Bad CBS/NYT poll question on AZ profiling debate

05/04/2010 10:44 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

A New York Times article on the latest CBS/NYT poll (PDF) suggests that a majority of Americans believe the new immigration law in Arizona "would result in racial profiling":

[D]espite protests against Arizona's stringent new immigration enforcement law, a majority of Americans support it, even though they say it may lead to racial profiling...

[T]the respondents broadly agreed that the Arizona law would result in racial profiling...

However, as a reader noted, the poll question featured in a sidebar to the article doesn't ask about racial profiling, which is typically defined as targeting individuals solely based on their racial or ethnic background. Instead, CBS and the Times asked the following:

How likely do you think it is that the new law in Arizona will lead to police officers detaining people of certain racial or ethnic groups more frequently than other racial or ethnic groups? Do you think that is very likely to happen, somewhat likely, not too likely or not at all likely to happen?

Given the composition of the illegal immigrant population, Latinos will almost certainly be detained more frequently than other racial or ethnic groups under any enforcement regime in Arizona or any other state (particularly in comparison with their representation in the population). The relevant policy issue is whether the Arizona law will lead to detentions of Latinos based solely on their ethnic background. The Times article vaguely notes that "the Arizona Legislature and Gov. Jan Brewer made changes to the law on Friday that they say explicitly ban the police from racial profiling," but doesn't specify that the changes bar consideration of race or ethnicity in enforcement "except to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution" by removing the word "solely" from the following provision:

A law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state may not solely consider race, color or national origin in implementing the requirements of this subsection except to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution.

The poll question should have asked if people believe that this provision will be upheld in practice -- that's the question in dispute right now.