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Profiling in Arizona? Already done at internal immigration checkpoints!

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Reprint from Open salon.

By now, we've all read about the new law (since revised) enacted by the Arizona Governor Jane Brewer that allows police officers and local sheriffs to arrest anyone who couldn't produce immigration documents, and to allow the police to detain anyone suspected of being in the country illegally. Illegal immigration will now be considered a state crime rather than a federal one.

It remains to be seen how such a law can be enforced when there are thousands of tourists traveling through the U.S. at any given time. Many-I'd say most-of these tourists don't have official documents showing their citizenship (driver licenses aren't enough) especially all those arriving by car, bus, train or on foot over the border (you can do that legally, too). It's not like the U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) agents hand out a legal document that proves all these vehicular visitors have entered the U.S. with their blessing (at least if you're coming from Canada, that is-perhaps documents are given for people who cross the border from Mexico). As far as I know, holders of either work- or tourism-related visas aren't required to carry their I-94 form on them when they travel within the U.S. I certainly didn't.

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How could an Arizona police officer know whether or not the guy in the driver's seat or on the bus is an illegal immigrant, a tourist, or a U.S. citizen traveling through the state? And God help you if you can't prove where you're from. No wonder the Mexican Government has issued a travel advisory for Arizona-anyone remember the movie Born in East LA?

There's been a lot of anger generated by this atrocious law, and rightfully so. On the other hand, the Border Patrol's already been doing this for years without, it seems, anyone batting an eye (profiling that is). Bet you didn't know this:

The U.S. has lots of internal immigration checkpoints, located along key highways inside the four states adjacent to Mexico. As documented by a recent GAO report, there are 33 permanent checkpoints and several more 'strategic' or 'tactical' ones which can change location on a daily basis. These kinds are usually located along less-used back roads. Both permanent and mobile checkpoints can be located up to 75 miles from the southern border. I would not be surprised if CPB agents can randomly stop people (based on a reasonable suspicion), similar to what police officers and local Sheriffs will be able to do in Arizona very shortly. Let me get back to you on this one.

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Here's a bird's eye view of a checkpoint located along I10 a few miles east of El Paso, Texas (Sierra Blanca).

Courtesy: Google Earth

There's no doubt these checkpoints catch illegal immigrants and drug traffickers, but at what cost? The same GAO report notes that checkpoints can cause congestion and delays that can have significantly adverse economic impacts. At the moment, such impact is too difficult to measure, which makes the cost effectiveness of these checkpoints unfortunately unknown. In other words, we don't know whether the money invested in these checkpoints is worth it, or should be spent on different methods to prevent illegal border crossings. Interestingly, since Arizona decided to enact a drastic immigration law, these checkpoints may not be working very well after all. You know, Arizona has a fair share of these control stations.

The biggest problem the opponents have with Arizona's new law is that it actually requires profiling-either of apparent ethnic background (does she look Mexican?), or of apparent wealth (does he look like he's established here?). Sure they say they'll guess at someone's status based on what they're wearing, but you can bet that the blond, blue-eyed kid in the scruffy shirt and ripped jeans won't be the one anyone asks for identification.

It might not surprise you, though, to find out that this kind of profiling isn't new-it's already been applied at the afore-mentioned internal checkpoints.

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Here's how they work:

Say you've been visiting El Paso and are tooling along the highway all tricked out in your 'Armpit of America' tee-shirt. Suddenly you arrive at an internal checkpoint. Everyone is forced to exit the highway onto what looks like a large parking lot without the gridlines. Now all the vehicles have to line up as if they're waiting to toss their quarters into the mesh net at the next toll booth. Slowly, apprehension mounting, everyone creeps towards the checkpoint for examination.

Sierra Blanca Immigration Checkpoint

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Dominique is an Associate Professor in the Zachry Department of Civil Engineering at Texas A&M University. His research work aims at reducing the negative effects associated with motor vehicle crashes. When he's not developing mathematical and (more...)

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Profiling in Arizona? Already done at internal immigration checkpoints!