Are We Living in a Police State?: Americans of Color

Colorlines has a very good story by Caroline Kim and Jenna Loyd (“Is Riding the Bus a Ticket to Jail?”) on racial profiling of bus riders and others who travel and use public accommodations in the United States. The USA has become something close to a police state not only for black Americans, who have faced this problem for nearly 400 years, but now for everyone who does not look white. The story indicates that reports by the Detainment Task Force, a Northern New York group, has found that Border Patrol agents in upstate New York cities–Syracuse, Rochester and Buffalo–now routinely engage in racial profiling by questioning only those

who appear to be Mexican, Central American, South Asian, Asian, Afro-Caribbean, or Middle Eastern. Border Patrol officials deny that the agency racially profiles….But common understandings of race in the U.S. fuse nationality and ethnicity so that some groups are permanently deemed to be “foreign.”

Yet, none of the people interviewed for their report noticed that blond-haired or blue-eyed white travelers were being stopped by the Border Patrol. The authors discuss next a legal U.S. resident:

The story of Tomas, who is from Guatemala, illustrates the ways in which law enforcement’s use of racial profiling—and the collaboration of local law enforcement with Border Patrol agents—impedes people’s ability to travel. In July 2007, Tomas and his friend Salvador were driving to a doctor’s appointment. As they pulled out of the toll plaza … in Syracuse, a state trooper stopped them. Tomas has a valid U.S. driver’s license and a properly registered vehicle. The state trooper gave no indication of why he had stopped the vehicle, but he did ask Tomas and Salvador about their immigration status and then called Border Patrol agents. “The police officer stopped us because we have Hispanic faces,” Tomas said.

DWH, “driving while Hispanic,” is a apparently crime in the United States. The article continues:

Last October he was traveling to Syracuse on Greyhound when Border Patrol agents boarded the bus at the Rochester bus station. “The Border Patrol agents questioned all the Hispanic, Middle Eastern and Asian passengers,” he recalled. “They did not question any of the white passengers except some women who were wearing veils. Border Patrol had dogs with them and checked the whole bus.”

If you are a person of color, traveling by bus now can be like traveling in the Germany of World War II, with uniformed police checking for identification papers just like Nazi German agents on trains and buses in the old Hollywood movies. I remember dozens of those movies well, when I was a kid. They were supposed to teach us how bad authoritarian regimes were.

And then, according to the Colorlines article, it happened again in another place:

A separate incident occurred in December when Tomas was at the Syracuse bus station with another friend. They were speaking to each other in Spanish as they approached the ticket counter where a Border Patrol agent was stationed. “As soon as the Border Patrol agent heard us speaking Spanish, he asked me for my papers,” he said.

The oldest European language in North America, Spanish, is now a signal to Border Patrol agents to do racial profiling, which some/many do with impunity.

Are such warrant-less searches and asking for identification illegal? They are if there is no probable cause to do so. A recent ACLU lawsuit reported by the National Immigration Law Center makes this clear:

The Rhode Island Affiliate of the ACLU has filed a federal lawsuit against the Rhode Island State Police, challenging the legality of the detention and transporting to immigration officials of 14 Guatemalan nationals who were stopped in a van on I-95 on July 11, 2006, after the driver changed lanes without using a turn signal. The lawsuit … argues that the actions by the state police violated the state’s Racial Profiling Prevention Act, as well as the driver’s and passengers’ constitutional rights to be free from discrimination and from unreasonable searches and seizures.

. . . the state trooper who stopped the van first confirmed that the driver’s registration and license were valid and that he had no criminal record. The trooper nevertheless opened the vehicle’s doors and, with the driver interpreting, asked all the passengers to also present their IDs. When some did not produce any, the trooper asked them if they had any documents demonstrating that they were U.S. citizens, and no one was able to produce any. Ultimately, the trooper advised the passengers that they all would be escorted to the U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement office in Providence…. he instructed the driver that if any passenger attempted to escape from the van en route to Providence, the passenger would be shot. The suit argues that the defendants “knew or should have known that the search, seizure and detention of the Plaintiffs were without reasonable or probable cause and were therefore unlawful under the circumstances.”

Skin color and language are not adequate reasons for requesting identification or for search, seizure, and detention in a “free” country with a Bill of Rights. One can apparently be shot for holding too close to the Bill of Rights’ fourth amendment, which reads thus:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.