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Sowing Fear Among Latinos

June 23, 2004

Latino neighborhoods throughout Southern California are in a state of near panic over a new policy of seemingly random arrests of illegal immigrants by the Border Patrol. For years, Border Patrol agents concentrated on the border and highway checkpoints. But that changed last year. Now a dozen agents rove far from the border, confronting individuals as they step off buses, troll for work or go to Mexican markets. News of arrests in Corona, Ontario and Escondido has fueled rumors of similar patrols as far afield as Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. People in fear of being arrested and deported are skipping doctor visits, avoiding shopping trips and even keeping their kids out of school.

There are two issues here. One is racial profiling. Immigration officials insist that target areas are based on "intelligence" and that arrests are based on information voluntarily divulged during "consensual conversations" with suspects. But even if this is true ("Good morning. Great weather today for us legal people. Does that include you?" "No, senor."), questions remain about who is honored to take part in such conversations. At border and highway checkpoints, everyone is stopped at least briefly, and standard procedures that minimize race-based decisions are possible. But how does an agent decide where to wander when a whole city is at his or her disposal? Whom does that agent approach in the crowd descending from a bus? Not only is it more difficult to guard against racial profiling, it's hard to see how these roaming patrols could even work without it.

And the patrols do work. More than 200 people have been arrested and deported so far. The atmosphere of fear may discourage many times that number from crossing the border. That makes the second issue even more difficult: What is wrong with causing fear, or even terror, of arrest and deportation among illegal immigrants? They are lawbreakers. What they fear is exactly what our immigration policy is designed to achieve. What sense is there in giving them a haven once they are far from the border?

These patrols might be defensible if they were part of a comprehensive immigration policy that reflected some degree of statewide and national consensus. But there is no such policy and no such consensus.

Or is there? While desperate Latinos are being snatched out of supermarkets, there are no random patrols visiting farms and factories and arresting employers. The prospect of jobs at U.S. wages is what brings immigrants here. Striking up a consensual conversation with a few employers on the golf course some Saturday afternoon, and then arresting them, would do more to discourage illegal immigration than grabbing poor people as they buy vegetables. Yet somehow that does not happen. Nor are random patrols striking up consensual conversations with nannies in the park and sending them back to Sweden, or wherever.

Illegal immigrants from Latin America could be forgiven for suspecting that these contradictions are actually part of a coherent immigration policy after all. It is a policy of guaranteeing employers a source of cheap and docile workers. And random arrests in places these people formerly thought were safe would fit perfectly into such a policy. We do not believe that an approach so cynical is the actual, unspoken immigration policy of the United States. But we do believe that the convenience of the current mess for many powerful interests reduces the pressure for comprehensive immigration reform.

The paralysis and contradictions of America's immigration policy, though, are not caused primarily by the usual clash of strong views and material interests. What makes the immigration issue so agonizing is widespread ambivalence: The battle is as much inside us as it is among us. This battle needs to be fought and settled. Until those lucky enough to be American citizens do the hard work of citizenship and come up with an immigration policy they can live with, morally and economically, it is senseless and heartless to impose misery and terror at random among the large communities of illegal immigrants we allow to live here.

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