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Why Black folks should care about Arizona's new immigration law

THEODORE M. SHAW | 4/12/2011, 5:26 p.m.

Arizona's new immigration law requires law enforcement officials to arrest and detain anyone reasonably suspected to be in the country illegally. It is an invitation to racial profiling--something with which African-Americans are painfully familiar.

Some Black folk--thinking that when the Arizona law goes into effect, it is not their ox that will be gored--do not care much about what happens to Latinos in Arizona. Some, unhappy with the growing political and economic power of Hispanics/Latinos and the negative effects of immigration on Black employment opportunities, may even support the new law. But that's a huge mistake.

President Obama has called it "misguided." Attorney General Eric Holder has indicated that he may seek to invalidate it. Arizona's immigration law is almost certainly unconstitutionally vague, and it will be discriminatorily applied. Moreover, it is just plain wrong.

Immigration reform legitimately ranks among the most pressing challenges on the nation's agenda. In 2008, the Center for Immigration Studies estimated that the illegal immigrant population in the U.S. to be approximately 11 million people. Some estimates are closer to 20 million; no one knows for sure. The Pew Hispanic Center reported in 2005 that 57 percent of all illegal immigrants were from Mexico, 24 percent were from other Latin American countries, 9 percent were from Asia, 6 percent from Europe and 4 percent from the rest of the world.

The effects of illegal immigration on the U.S. economy are profound. National Public Radio has reported that approximately 3 percent of illegal immigrants work in agriculture, 33 percent in service industries, 16 percent in construction and 17 percent in production, installation and repair. Generally, the presence of illegal immigrants is thought to drive down wages for low-income workers. Research by leading economists at Harvard and MIT suggests that immigration has had a small, but discernable, effect on Black wages, employment and even incarceration rates. Whatever the actual numerical effects of immigration may be on African-Americans, in some communities, tensions between African-Americans and Latinos have been at a low boil.

The effects of illegal immigration are not all negative. Undocumented immigrants pay an estimated $7 billion a year in Social Security taxes. It is commonly said that illegal immigrants do jobs that no one else wants to do, although whether others would do those jobs is debatable. What is not debatable is that illegal immigrants make a huge contribution to legal and underground economies. Nonetheless, in the age of terrorism and economic uncertainty, border security, and therefore immigration reform, are necessities.

Arizona has been on the front line of immigration wars. Not all who seek to control immigration do so with racist motives. But there is a strong and undeniable element of racism in the anti-immigrant movement. It is no coincidence that at the same time that the Arizona legislature has enacted the most repressive immigration law in decades, it is also considering a bill that would require President Obama to produce his birth certificate before he can be on the ballot for reelection in 2012. This is not Arizona's first instance of demonstrated hostility to the interests of people of color in recent years. In the 1980s, Arizona refused to recognize the Martin Luther King Holiday long after it was a national holiday.

Not everyone in Arizona supports the legislation. Among law enforcement officials, there is concern that the law will expose them to charges of racial profiling. Indeed, how would a law enforcement official exercise "reasonable suspicion" about whether someone is in the country illegally? There is no doubt that it is Latinos who will be stopped and asked to produce their papers, and not white people. And how will the police distinguish between who is probably a citizen and who is not? By appearances? To require Latinos, even those who were born in the United States and whose families have been here for generations, to carry citizenship papers upon pain of arrest and detention is wrong. It is pure discrimination of the ugliest kind. And if Black folk think that racial profiling, sanctioned by law, will leave them untouched, they forget who they are and from whence they came.