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Editorial: The People, The Police, The Power

July 2, 2012
Plain English Version

It is not a crime to live in America without legal papers, but it is a violation of immigration laws. Undocumented people face detainment and deportation.

Identifying aliens without papers is the goal of the Federal Secure Communities Act and Arizona’s immigration law. The search is for undocumented aliens who are criminals or frequent violators of the law. They face deportation or prosecution.

Federal law is that anyone charged with a violation of the law will have his fingerprints checked against F.B.I. and Homeland Security records. Undocumented matches are reviewed for criminal activities and other violations

The Arizona law says police must ask for legal documents, such as driver’s licenses, of anyone they stop who they believe may be undocumented. If they find an undocumented person, they inform Immigration and Customs Enforcement. It is up to ICE to decide what to do.

The intent of New York City’s stop and frisk (search) rule is not papers or fingerprints. It is to find people carrying weapons. Anyone may be stopped and asked to empty his pockets if an officer has reason to believe he is carrying a weapon.

These federal, state and city laws and rules are said by many to be in conflict with  individuals’ rights to privacy and freedom from government harassment.

Others say people who violate laws should face detection and punishment for the good of the whole community.

Both sides are right. The most important questions are:

  • is the law applied fairly?
  • is the law carried out with respect for the rights of the individual?

A great many people say no to both questions. Most people who are stopped and asked for documents are minorities. Many who are stopped and fingerprinted have committed no serious crimes but are still held and sent back to their countries. Many in New York City are found to be carrying not weapons but small amounts of marijuana and face charges.

The rules say the police must have a reason to question people, such as appearing possibly undocumented because they are in “groups,’ or in vehicles traveling together. In New York the reason may just be looking like they have something to hide.

Everyone agrees the laws are often abused. The failure to properly train police and federal agents is frequently mentioned. All agencies of government say they are improving the instructions given to police and are trying to reduce incidents of abuse.

The police are trained to take control of situations and view the world as a dangerous place. It may not be abuse to stop somebody without cause, but it is abuse if he is treated in an insulting and aggressive manner. Sometimes, police behavior can be the biggest problem.

People who say the laws are unfairly administered want to repeal them. People who say police work is dangerous and stressful want to give officers the benefit of the doubt. And of course some people really are criminals.

Holding everyone to acceptable standards of behavior is a goal. As a nation, we have to work tirelessly not to treat innocent people as criminals. That is Rule One. Rule Two is we have to end the uncertain legal status of people living here. That will let us act on Rule Three: going after the bad guys.

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