Welcome to Nebraska; your papers please?


By William Muller, Contributor

Arzona’s controversial crackdown that bestowed greater powers and obligations upon local law enforcement officers to enforce immigration policy has prompted legislatures in at least 20 other states, including Nebraska, to consider similar measures.

The Illegal  Immigration Enforcement Act, LB 48, introduced by State Sen. Charlie Janssen of Fremont, seeks to grant Nebraska law enforcement officers powers normally reserved for Federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. In short, police officers would have the power to determine the legal status of those arrested, detained or held during routine traffic stops.

The language of the law requires law enforcement to investigate the legal status of an individual when an officer feels “reasonable suspicion.” If someone cannot provide documentation on the spot that he or she is a legal U.S. resident or citizen, LB 48 grants the police power to detain the individual for as long as it takes to confirm his or her legal status.

Reasonable suspicion in these cases isn’t addressed in the legislation, however, and without clear guidelines as to what encompasses reasonable suspicion, officers using their own discretion may rely on stereotypical traits such as a dark skin complexion, speaking with an accent, difficulty comprehending English or simply ‘appearing foreign.’

Neoconservative commentator Bill Kristol – a staunch supporter of this type of legislation – recently said on Fox News that while he believes anyone being targeted by a police officer simply to check one’s legal status is a “huge horrible civil rights violation,” this kind of incident would happen in only a handful of cases. Such murky authoritarian reasoning runs contrary to a system based on the premise of innocent until proven guilty.

While proponents of the bill believe they’re solving the issue of immigration, what LB 48 really accomplishes is codifying and legitimizing racial and ethnic profiling. The absence of any indicator of criminal activity aside from suspicion of being an illegal alien violates the search and seizure clause of the Fourth Amendment and the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

Nearly one in 10 Nebraskans is Latino, and only a small minority is here illegally. Legislation like LB 48 places an enormous burden of proof on entire populations of people for whom appearance can be a misleading indicator of nationality or legal status.

When an individual’s legal status isn’t clear, the police officer is required to detain the individual until his or her status can be verified. While the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Service maintains databases of foreign guests, there’s no way to determine if someone is illegal without holding the individual – often for lengthy periods of time – until an exhaustive search can be made to determine his or her status. This requires more resources and holding space than are readily available to most police departments.

Supporters of LB 48 argue that the police would just be enforcing the law – but is it more important to have public servants tied up in validating people’s legal statuses, or to have them available to respond to actual emergencies?

The Nebraska Legislature’s Judiciary Committee voted earlier this month not to advance any immigration legislation that session and at least – for now – LB 48 is stalled until next year. Immigration reform is the 8,000-pound gorilla in the room, and the politics of scapegoating is as old as politics itself.


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