Just one day after some members of the House of Representatives voted to prevent the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) from doing its job by prohibiting funding for its lawsuits challenging state anti-immigrant laws like Arizona's SB 1070, the DOJ sent a strong message that it is still very much in the business of administering justice. The federal government's announcement that it filed a lawsuit against "Sheriff Joe" of Arizona is welcome news for anyone with brown skin or a Spanish accent in Maricopa County. The lawsuit describes systemic discrimination and mistreatment of Latinos that sends chills down the spine of those of us who believe in the rights enshrined by our Constitution.
Sadly, Joe Arpaio isn't the only law enforcement official to systemically mistreat Latinos and others who appear to be "foreign." I had the privilege of participating in a delegation organized by the We Belong Together campaign, and heard the chilling testimony of courageous women like Juana Villegas who was shackled and detained while giving birth after being arrested for a minor traffic violation by Davidson County sheriff's deputies. The DOJ lawsuit will hopefully deter similarly emboldened law enforcement officers from New Haven, Connecticut to New Orleans, Louisiana , who have engaged in discriminatory behavior against Latinos and others, treating them as second class citizens or detaining them in subhuman conditions.
Fortunately, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office and others engaging in such discriminatory and retaliatory conduct are outliers. Most law enforcement officers I've spoken with believe in community policing and understand that they cannot do their jobs if immigrants do not trust the police enough to come forward to report a crime either as a witness or victim. Most law enforcement officers know they need strong relationships with the immigrant community in order to ensure everyone's safety.
Unfortunately, it only takes one Sheriff Joe to sever ties between law enforcement and immigrant communities across the nation. As a result of the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office's actions, Latinos in Arizona have concluded, and not without reason, that law enforcement is not to be trusted. Over the past few years, the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office has allegedly engaged in the following actions with impunity:
- Stopping a woman who was 5 months pregnant, demanding that she sit on the hood of the car, and grabbing her arms and slamming her, stomach first, into the automobile three times when she fails to comply.
- Calling Latinos detained in the Maricopa County system "wetbacks," "stupid Mexicans," and "fucking Mexicans."
- Advancing paranoid "reconquista" theories about Latinos and immigrants.
These are only a few of the truly heinous allegations DOJ documented in their complaint, which paints a particularly disturbing picture of what happens when an organization that purports to eschew racial profiling asks simply for the public to trust that they are following the letter of the law when asked for proof of their behavior.
Not surprisingly, proponents of SB 1070, Arizona's notorious racial profiling law, offer the same blithe "trust us" response to community members who voice concerns that SB 1070 will cause those of us with brown skin or an accent to be detained or harassed by law enforcement, simply because we fit someone's description of "foreign."
The DOJ lawsuit serves as a strong reminder to all of us that we should not institute policies, practices, or laws that leave our constitutionally-protected rights vulnerable to such rampant abuses. Sheriff Joe and his counterparts across the country take advantage of state laws like SB 1070 and federal policies like Secure Communities that enable racial profiling to occur to advance their discriminatory agenda.
DOJ's continued efforts to enforce our civil rights and ensure that states and localities do not undermine our constitutional rights are commendable. The Department of Homeland Security should act in concert and terminate Secure Communities, especially in places like Maricopa County and New Orleans Parish, where DOJ has found patterns of racial profiling. Homeland Security should also terminate Secure Communities in states like Arizona, where SB 1070 is promoting the same type of racial profiling. By ensuring that complementary policies are working in concert, the federal government can help restore a sense of community among law enforcement and all those they're sworn to protect and serve.
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