What does an illegal immigrant look like?
Arizona Governor Jan Brewer, who just signed SB 1070 into law last Friday--which allows law enforcement to stop and demand ID of anyone they have "reasonable suspicion" is illegal--has no idea.
And yet, isn't that the premise of this law? That you have to know what "illegal" looks like? Provision 1 of SB 1070 requires:
...a reasonable attempt to be made to determine the immigration status of a person during any legitimate contact made by an official or agency of the state or a county, city, town or political subdivision (political subdivision) if reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the U.S.
Now, "reasonable suspicion" is a legal standard that's been around for over 40 years. In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that a stop by law enforcement on the grounds of reasonable suspicion was legal if it met the following criteria:
...when a person possesses many unusual items which would be useful in a crime like a wire hanger and is looking into car windows at 2am, when a person matches a description of a suspect given by another police officer over department radio, or when a person runs away at the sight of police officers who are at common law right of inquiry (founded suspicion). However, reasonable suspicion may not apply merely because a person refuses to answer questions, declines to allow a voluntary search, or is of a suspected race or ethnicity. (Wikipedia)
But unless Arizona law enforcement actually catches someone in the act of crossing the border illegally, there's no way to really establish reasonable suspicion except by race or ethnicity, which is why SB 1070 is being referred to by some as the "Breathing While Brown" law.
What I find myself wondering though is: How Brown? SB 1070 is racism, to be sure, but is it colorism, too? I can't help thinking that the browner you are in Arizona, the more "suspicious" you'll seem. Already, lighter-skinned Latinos in the U.S. make $5,000 more on average than darker-skinned Latinos. And it's well-documented that dark-skinned African-Americans receive longer prison sentences than their light-skinned peers (not to mention whites). There are examples the world over--in Asia, the Middle East, Brazil--of color prejudice, where light skin is preferred, both interracially and intraracially, and equates to improved social standing, economic status, and marriage prospects.
Does this mean that more Hispanics and Latinos in the U.S. will be reaching for the Sammy Sosa-lightening cream in SB 1070's wake? It appears it's already happening. From the NY Times op-ed piece, "Shades of Prejudice," that appeared in January after Harry Reid's comments surfaced about Obama being an ideal political candidate because he was "light-skinned":
The Harvard neuroscientist Allen Counter has found that in Arizona, California and Texas, hundreds of Mexican-American women have suffered mercury poisoning as a result of the use of skin-whitening creams.
(Note that Dr. Counter's findings were clustered in Arizona, California, and Texas, all border states.)
And in a 2003 story for the Boston Globe, "Whitening skin can be deadly," Dr. Counter wrote of these same women:
Apparently, the patients reporting to clinics with mercury-induced disease believe that the health risks associated with bleaching their skins are outweighed by the rewarding sociocultural return.
With "brown" now equating to "illegal," this may be truer than we'd like to think.