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Budisidharta: Arizona’s anti-immigrant law's impact on the AAPI community

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Arizona Senate Bill 1070 ("SB 1070"), somewhat amusingly titled the "Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act," has sparked a firestorm of debate since being signed into law by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer on April 23, 2010. Numerous lawsuits have been filed to challenge the bill based on its language and its conflict with federal immigration law. The full impact of SB 1070 will not be felt until July 29, the date when the bill goes into effect. Only then will the nation be able to observe how it is applied by law enforcement to residents and visitors to Arizona.


The most discussed section of SB 1070 is its direction to law enforcement that during any lawful contact, "[W]here reasonable suspicion exists that the person is an alien who is unlawfully present in the United States, a reasonable attempt shall be made, when practicable, to determine the immigration status of the person." While there is no attempt in the bill to define what factors should be considered in determining whether a person is an illegal immigrant, the governor attempted to eliminate any worry about overzealous law enforcement by signing an executive order. The order promises law enforcement will be strained so that their application of SB 1070 "protects the civil rights of all persons and respects the privileges and immunities of United States citizens." The Governor also signed Arizona House Bill 2162, which specifies that law enforcement "may not consider race, color or national origin" in implementing SB 1070 except to the extent permitted by constitution.


Aspirational goals aside, the troubling question remains as to how SB 1070 will be applied. Since persons of any race, color or national origin can be illegal immigrant, there is no clear indication of when law enforcement should reasonably suspect that a person is here illegally. The problems posed by SB 1070's application are certainly not limited to those persons of Latino heritage. Asian Americans often possess characteristics that may be considered by Arizona law enforcement in profiling the population for illegal immigrants. Skin color (which the Governor and legislature assure us will never be considered), foreign accent, a primary language other than English, and customary dress may cause law enforcement officials to wrongly assume that a particular Asian American is here illegally. Recognizing the potential negative impact of SB 1070, groups like the Asian Pacific American Legal Center and the Asian American Justice Center have joined in the litigation battle against the bill.


Asians and Asian Americans in this country have faced an intermittent but disturbing history of discrimination. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which suspended the immigration of Chinese laborers to this country, is an early example of discrimination against Asians. Although many critics cite SB 1070 as a "papers please" law rivaling policies of Nazi Germany, the more appropriate World War II comparison comes from the United States itself. The internment of Japanese Americans for almost three years during the war was a startling and indefensible abuse of governmental power. While SB 1070 comes nowhere close to the magnitude of that terrible chapter of our nation’s history, the lessons of the internment are just as relevant today. The internment was the result of extreme stereotyping, paranoia, and racism. Those same attitudes, whether admitted or not, are prevalent among the clauses of SB 1070 and its supporters. Our government must be a bulwark against these attitudes, not an instrumentality.


Harry Budisidharta is a partner at the Law Firm of Balaban, Claeson & Budisidharta, LLP. He received his bachelor of arts in political science from California State University of Los Angeles, and his Juris Doctor (J.D.) from the University of Colorado Law School. Harry practices in the area of civil and criminal litigation. Harry can be contacted at harry@denverfirm.com.

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