Janesville25.4°

Looks can deceive

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Esther Cepeda
June 17, 2012
— I recently ran across a delightful campaign-style button that read: "I could be illegal."

And it's true -- I could be.


Let's let this hang for a moment as I describe a few of the guidelines discussed in a training video that was prepared for Arizona law enforcement. The Arizona Peace Officer Standards and Training Board created it in July 2010 as the state prepared to put its controversial "papers please" legislation into effect.


The video went back into play Tuesday when Gov. Jan Brewer asked all Arizona police to watch it again in advance of a Supreme Court ruling, expected sometime this month, determining whether law enforcement can question people's immigration status under reasonable suspicion.


Keep in mind that Brewer had insisted that the training materials needed to "make clear that an individual's race, color or national origin alone cannot be grounds for reasonable suspicion to believe any law is violated."


But after reading some of the pointers from the training video, you might say that the business of picking out illegal immigrants without racially profiling all citizens is anything but clear. In fact, it leaves such activity in the company of an obscenity -- "I know it when I see it."


So let's explore the red flags by assuming it's me getting pulled over by a law enforcement professional just doing his best to uphold the law with the very limited information at hand during a police stop.


"Lack of identification." Gosh, wouldn't it stink if I got pulled over on the day I'd left my purse at home while driving the half-mile down to the Redbox to return my about-to-be-overdue DVD?


"Possession of foreign identification or foreign vehicle registration." I'm in the clear on this one. Though as the past owner of a sparkly blue 1985 Oldsmobile Cutlass Supreme, I can say with authority that some cars just scream "Hispanic!" -- and therefore, by default, "suspicious" -- to law enforcement officers.


"Flight and/or preparation for flight, engaging in evasive maneuvers in vehicle, on foot, etc." Hey, I'm a busy journalist and mom -- if I'm in the car at all, I'm in flight mode, desperately trying to not be late for an interview or pick up a kid. And I'm evasive in my community all the time, too. People flag me down -- at the grocery store, the gas station, the car wash -- and I try to flee them before they ask me to write columns about their pet projects.


"Voluntary statements by the person regarding his or her citizenship or unlawful presence." This one reeks of entrapment -- what brown-skinned person residing in an illegal-immigrant-hunting state wouldn't blurt out "I'm a U.S. citizen" if he or she perceived that they were being singled out by police for that very reason?


"Vehicle is overcrowded or rides heavily, passengers in vehicle attempt to hide or avoid detection." Again, as a mom who regularly ferries packs of young men to the skate park, overcrowded cars filled with teens who aren't good at looking someone in the eyes or answering simple questions under pressure ("Demeanor -- unexplained nervousness, erratic behavior, refusal to make eye contact"), this one could really trip me up.


"Location, including, for example: A place where unlawfully present aliens are known to congregate looking for work." I'd better just stay away from the parking lot of the Home Depot.


Here's my favorite: "Dress." I could raise suspicion if I took a break from my gardening and gave my abuelita a ride to Wal-Mart. If I was wearing my big straw hat and old "Hecho en Mexico" T-shirt and my grandmother was in her knit shawl, black skirt, ankle socks and low-heeled pumps, our clothes would scream "we don't belong here."


And "belonging" is what it's all about, isn't? For those salivating to have the Arizona legislation upheld by the court, if the line between Hispanic and illegal immigrant is blurred, well, that's something they're prepared to live with -- but only because it doesn't affect them.


As a U.S.-born citizen I'm not living in this country illegally, but this doesn't mean I couldn't be seen that way. I should wear an "I could be illegal" button to prove a point -- though I fear it could put me at even higher risk of becoming one of the estimated 20,000 American citizens who have been detained and sometimes deported since the 2003 escalation of our nation's illegal immigrant witch hunt.


Esther Cepeda's email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

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