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The Politics of Intimidation

Posted: 08/03/2012 10:07 am

By Sheila Starkey Hahn

The recent Supreme Court ruling in Arizona v. United States has brought the immigration debate back to center stage. The Court struck down three provisions of the Arizona law but upheld Section 2(b), arguably the most controversial. This section requires that when a police officer stops, detains or arrests someone for a valid reason, then develops "reasonable suspicion" that the person is unlawfully present in the United States, the officer must make a reasonable attempt to determine the person's immigration status.

Undoubtedly, the court's decision will embolden other states to introduce similar legislation. In fact, this battle has already played out in Prince William County, Virginia, where a similar "show me your papers" law resulted in chaos and forced the county to hastily reverse its position. Documentarians Annabel Park and Eric Byler captured this drama in their film, 9500 Liberty, a case study that is indicative of what is still to come in Arizona and elsewhere.

The law at issue in 9500 Liberty is a 2007 resolution that mandated police officers check the immigration status of anyone they had probable cause to believe was undocumented. The law was drafted by the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR), a national anti-immigrant group that targets communities that have experienced an influx of Latino immigrants and are vulnerable to fear and racial bias.

In this election season, 9500 Liberty is revelatory. Kris Kobach, the Secretary of State of Kansas, is Mitt Romney's "informal" immigration advisor. As counsel with the legal arm of FAIR, Kobach drafted the Arizona legislation and similar legislation for at least five other states. All of these laws rely on a theory called "self- deportation" that has been endorsed by Mitt Romney. Under this principle, American citizens would make life so miserable for undocumented immigrants that they would simply go home. In 9500 Liberty, we get a taste for what this means. Racist rantings are posted on a local website; children are shouted at in the streets; Latinos are labeled as parasites. As the hatred grows, Latinos flee the county, leaving homes abandoned and businesses shuttered.

Like the main provision of the Prince William County law, similar restrictionist laws will fail for two reasons. First, the racial profiling used to enforce the laws is unconstitutional. Second, the American people will realize, as residents of Prince William County did, that driving out an entire segment of the population results in decreasing property values, a shrinking tax base, closed businesses and increased crime as the community stops trusting the police. Furthermore, the American people do not have the appetite for the tax increases that would have to be implemented to pay for enforcement of these laws.

In the words of the late Michael Maggio, "undocumented immigrants overwhelmingly are self-selecting overachievers who are willing to take tremendous risks." As Anthony D. Romero of the ACLU states in his introduction to 9500 Liberty, "what is at stake in the immigration debate is no less than the character of our nation." Watch 9500 Liberty on to better understand that debate.

Sheila Starkey Hahn practices immigration law in Potomac, MD. She is a member of the ExecutiveCommittee of the DC Chapter of the American Immigration Lawyers Association and frequently lectures on topics of immigration law.