Illegal immigration and shoplifting: an analogy

A lot of what I hear about the recent Arizona Immigration Law (SB 1070) is people who support the bill labeling opponents as pro-illegal immigration. This logic is pretty faulty, as it unknowingly (or maybe knowingly) assumes that every person who is asked to provide documentation of their legal residence — because of a police officer’s “reasonable suspicion” — will be without legal documentation.

But the problem is precisely that too many people assume that the nonwhite people they see roaming the streets are here illegally. Yes, 55 percent of Mexicans are here illegally. And out of the population of illegal immigrants, about 62 percent are Mexican. And many white Americans simply assume all Mexicans are here illegally, so they don’t think it’s a big deal to spot them and deport them.

For one, it ignores the 45 percent of Mexicans here legally, who will be treated as second-class citizens even though they have followed every rule they are supposed to in order to legally reside in the United States. And who can explain what “Mexican” looks like? How about Honduran? Guatemalan? Creating a profile based solely on a broad physical attribute is a slippery slope.

My closest encounter with something like this is when salespeople used to follow me around department stores because I was young and, they assumed, was going to steal. I have never shoplifted in my life, but very obviously salespeople would follow me around anyway. Through supporters-of-the-reform-bill logic, I shouldn’t have cared because had they asked to check my bag, I would’ve been free and clear.

But the fact that they would target me simply because I looked younger was the infuriating part — I hadn’t done anything to imply that I would steal except exist, and why is it my fault that other people my age steal? If they searched everyone’s bags, that’s one thing — everyone is treated equally. But they just chose to follow me, which made me uncomfortable and feel guilty for something I didn’t do.

In fact, following SB 1070 logic, instead of just being suspicious and keeping an eye on me, those salespeople could detain me and search my stuff simply because I looked like I might be the type to steal. Typically, department stores won’t detain you unless they saw you steal and you tried to leave the premises with the merchandise. What would retail stores be like if sales associates could just rummage through your stuff and keep you detained because they personally think you look like a thief? How embarrassing if they were to mistake your potbelly for merchandise, and they made you prove that you were just overweight and not stealing.

Another time, my friend Erin and I were at Kohl’s and the person in front of us — a middle-aged woman — used her debit card without being questioned by the cashier. Then Erin went to pay and the cashier asked her for ID with the debit card. Erin made a remark about how it was interesting that she was asked for ID, and the cashier said,  “Well, we’re supposed to ask everyone to see ID,” to which Erin responded, “You didn’t ask the woman before me.” The cashier simply apologized, acknowledging that she had taken a “store policy” and only applied it to the people she deemed suspicious — in this case, people who were young.

But instead of ageism or another -ism, this reform bill is racism. Think about what it means to be “white.” Then divide that into ethnicity, and sometimes you might be able to tell if someone is Irish or Italian, but sometimes your guesses will be wrong or you won’t be able to figure out ethnicity because it’s so much more than just the pigment of someone’s skin. But of course, if you’re white, you can rest assured that no one is going to pull you over and check your citizenship status.

In fact, I wish this recent Gallup poll would’ve asked participants what their ethnicity is so we could see the demographic that favors the measure — I wouldn’t be surprised if the vast majority of supporters were white and never would have to even worry about being affected by this law so of course they don’t see it as a problem. Even though most admitted they thought it would lead to racial profiling, that isn’t a concern if you are considered white and hence without a “race,” so to speak.

This immigration reform law — which doesn’t reform the immigration system in any way except to play guess and check with people who fit a certain racial stereotype and kick those who fail out of the country — is trouble. Imagine going to the department store and being asked to empty your pockets or purse every time someone looked at you and felt like you might be stealing, regardless of whether the accusation is baseless — you wouldn’t want to go back to those department stores, would you?

Department stores know this, so they aren’t about to accuse all their customers of being thieves without some hard evidence of wrongdoing– maybe something Arizona should consider in the wake of tourist boycotts.
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Sidenote 1: I am really sick and tired of people quoting that Gallup poll and saying that more than half of Americans favor it. Wrong. Almost a third of Americans hadn’t even heard of the legislation or don’t have an opinion, and a slim majority — 51 percent — of those who had heard of the bill were in favor. Big difference — out of 100 Americans, that means about 39 people favor it, as opposed to the 51 that some news outlets and people would like the public to believe.

Sidenote 2: Consider other instances were the government lumped all people into a stereotype and disregarded the fact they might be in this country legally and deserving of the same rights that natural-born citizens enjoy. I immediately think of the Japanese internment camps, in which two-thirds of the Japanese-Americans sent there were legal residents of the U.S. and were guilty only of being Japanese.

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2 Responses to “Illegal immigration and shoplifting: an analogy”

  1. Jack Marshall Says:

    Your logic and reasoning are terrible. If a majority of Mexicans in the US are here illegally, it is not racism to deem being Mexican a reasonable justification for checking credentials. That is called “statistical probability.” Is making a group of citizens being exploited by those who want to come here illegally feel like 2nd class citizens the fault of law enforcement officials trying to enforce the law, or the fault of the illegals who make their former countrymen look suspect? The profiling issue is being used a smoke screen to preclude enforcement of critical laws and facilitate open immigration from Mexico. If I were Mexican-American, I would want illegals arrested and deported so nobody ever questioned my citizenship, and I would voluntarily display certification to help that occur.

    Your analogy is weak, weak, weak. Everyone is welcome in a store UNTIL they break the law. Illegal immigrants are NOT welcome in the Arizona or elsewhere, and the point of the law is to make them feel unwelcome. It should not make any legal immigrant feel unwelcome, any more than I feel unwelcome on an airplane when I am wanded, as I am every time.

    The Arizona law is not immigration reform, it is law enforcement. Your solution is to not enforce the law, and allow it to be broken openly. This is irresponsible, unfair, and wrong. You also betray ignorance of Arizona, where most of the law enforcement officials are Hispanic themselves. You really think they are racists? You really think they will pull over 75% of the population who look like them?

    • cathyjwilson Says:

      The point you’re missing is that although statistical probability says more Mexicans are here illegally than not, the way to solve this is not by simply trying to figure out who the immigrants are by skin color. You deem Mexican as justification, well how to do figure out who is Mexican? I’m sure most people couldn’t from a lineup look at a Mexican, Honduran, Guatemalan, Ecuadoran, Brazialian, etc. and point out what country they are from. But if you’re Mexican-American and you want illegals deported, yet that involves you getting questioned on various occasions for doing nothing but being Mexican, is that OK with you? What if you’re a natural-born citizen and you don’t have “immigration documents?” Will the police think it’s necessary to detain you to check your story about being a natural-born citizen?

      I see the point that a store isn’t like a country, and that stores are open to everyone but countries have regulations about how to get in. You’re right there. But in making illegal immigrants feel unwelcome, it simultaneously makes legal immigrants and natural-born citizens feel unwelcome, too. I don’t advocate not enforcing the law, I advocate the law be changed.

      Although I think your point about most of the law enforcement being hispanic is really interesting … I plan on looking into that some more.

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