Sowing Fear Among Latinos

Latino neighborhoods throughout Southern California are in a state of near
panic over a new policy of seemingly random arrests of illegal immigrants by
the Border Patrol.


Latino neighborhoods throughout Southern California are in a state of near
panic over a new policy of seemingly random arrests of illegal immigrants by
the Border Patrol. For years, Border Patrol agents concentrated on the
border and highway checkpoints. But that changed last year. Now a dozen
agents rove far from the border, confronting individuals as they step off
buses, troll for work or go to Mexican markets. News of arrests in Corona,
Ontario and Escondido has fueled rumors of similar patrols as far afield as
Pasadena and the San Fernando Valley. People in fear of being arrested and
deported are skipping doctor visits, avoiding shopping trips and even
keeping their kids out of school.

There are two issues here. One is racial profiling. Immigration officials
insist that target areas are based on “intelligence” and that arrests are
based on information voluntarily divulged during “consensual conversations”
with suspects. But even if this is true (“Good morning. Great weather today
for us legal people. Does that include you?” “No, señor.”), questions remain
about who is honored to take part in such conversations. At border and
highway checkpoints, everyone is stopped at least briefly, and standard
procedures that minimize race-based decisions are possible. But how does an
agent decide where to wander when a whole city is at his or her disposal?
Whom does that agent approach in the crowd descending from a bus? Not only
is it more difficult to guard against racial profiling, it’s hard to see how
these roaming patrols could even work without it.

And the patrols do work. More than 200 people have been arrested and
deported so far. The atmosphere of fear may discourage many times that
number from crossing the border. That makes the second issue even more
difficult: What is wrong with causing fear, or even terror, of arrest and
deportation among illegal immigrants? They are lawbreakers. What they fear
is exactly what our immigration policy is designed to achieve. What sense is
there in giving them a haven once they are far from the border?

These patrols might be defensible if they were part of a comprehensive
immigration policy that reflected some degree of statewide and national
consensus. But there is no such policy and no such consensus.

Or is there? While desperate Latinos are being snatched out of supermarkets,
there are no random patrols visiting farms and factories and arresting
employers. The prospect of jobs at U.S. wages is what brings immigrants
here. Striking up a consensual conversation with a few employers on the golf
course some Saturday afternoon, and then arresting them, would do more to
discourage illegal immigration than grabbing poor people as they buy
vegetables. Yet somehow that does not happen. Nor are random patrols
striking up consensual conversations with nannies in the park and sending
them back to Sweden, or wherever.

Illegal immigrants from Latin America could be forgiven for suspecting that
these contradictions are actually part of a coherent immigration policy
after all. It is a policy of guaranteeing employers a source of cheap and
docile workers. And random arrests in places these people formerly thought
were safe would fit perfectly into such a policy. We do not believe that an
approach so cynical is the actual, unspoken immigration policy of the United
States. But we do believe that the convenience of the current mess for many
powerful interests reduces the pressure for comprehensive immigration

The paralysis and contradictions of America’s immigration policy, though,
are not caused primarily by the usual clash of strong views and material
interests. What makes the immigration issue so agonizing is widespread
ambivalence: The battle is as much inside us as it is among us. This battle
needs to be fought and settled. Until those lucky enough to be American
citizens do the hard work of citizenship and come up with an immigration
policy they can live with, morally and economically, it is senseless and
heartless to impose misery and terror at random among the large communities
of illegal immigrants we allow to live here.


News Service: L.A. Times