The Common Good

Echoes of Arizona: Illinois Congressional Candidate Stopped and Searched for Driving-While-Looking-Latino

Early Saturday evening, three friends and I headed out to Chicago for dinner at a favorite restaurant in our old neighborhood (Pilsen). We were discussing (ironically, as it turns out) the recent passage of harsh immigration laws in Arizona, and the possibility that the new legislation will entrench racial profiling and increase harassment of both documented and undocumented minorities. For reasons that will become clear, I note that the other three in the car are Caucasian-Americans, and I am a bi-racial Asian-American, born overseas, citizen by birth.

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With I-290 jammed with traffic due to construction, we turned off to Rt. 38 (Roosevelt Road) and continued towards the city. What ensued is a timely illustration of why--especially in light of the new Arizona immigration law--we need laws that are more just towards immigrants and minorities and law enforcement officers who are better trained to uphold them.

While driving along Rt. 38 we were pulled over by officers from the Cicero Police Department. They initially gave no reason for the traffic stop and ignored our requests to both show proper identification and give a reason for our detention. Instead, we were ordered out of our car without explanation, lined up against a police squad car, and searched. Our vehicle was searched as well. When nothing illegal was found, one of the officers explained that we were pulled over because we were "light skinned" and "could have been Hispanic", and that there are problems with Hispanics trafficking drugs along that road.

They returned our licenses, thanked us for cooperating, and let us go. When I asked for some documentation of our innocence, in case word of the traffic stop and search got out and became political fodder against my campaign for Congress, the officers said they would write our driver a ticket for the "probable cause" that justified the stop. Instead, they wrote out a ticket for "failure to wear seat belt required," even though the driver and all of us had been wearing our seat belts.

The point of the incident is not the inconvenience and humiliation of a roadside stop and search of law-abiding citizens, engaged in no illicit activity, on what was meant to be a pleasant night-out. The point is also not to protest the minor injustice of a bogus traffic ticket.

The point is that even without harsh new Arizona-style legal reform (or is it, 'deform'), 'probable cause' already provides police with excessive liberties to stop and search entirely law-abiding, legal citizens, without any evidence of wrong-doing, or even reasonable suspicion of illegal activity or intention. If suspicion fell on us simply because (a) we are light-skinned, and (b) we were driving through a predominately Hispanic neighborhood, consider the level of harassment that actual Hispanic-Americans must face, even if American-born and completely law-abiding! If we can be stopped and searched on no other grounds than baseless suspicion, who cannot be treated similarly?

Lest there be any doubt, I fully support our law-enforcement officers in their challenging and dangerous work of keeping our communities safe. Nonetheless, if this sort of incident can occur under the restrictions of 'probable cause,' we must not lower the legal standard further to 'reasonable suspicion,' as Arizona has done. What sort of hell will anti-immigrant legislation devise for law-abiding American minorities, simply because of the color of their skin or the paranoia of an arresting officer?

In the aftermath of the shocking evil and unspeakable tragedy of 9/11, many feared a backlash against American minorities, tearing apart the multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-religious tapestry which is the genius of our great nation. Against that backdrop, the Ad Council ran a simple, but incredibly moving, public service announcement titled, I am an American.

Over the next couple of decades, as our country moves from a Caucasian majority, to a truly heterogeneous, non-majority population, discomfort over the transition could pose a new threat to the character of our American community. Fear of change may produce a wave of new legislation, born less out of legitimate legalities and more of fear, fragmenting the unity-in-diversity which is our national treasure.

E Pluribus Unum; out of many, one. Though deriving from diverse ethnicities, races, skin colors, religions, countries of origin, classes, and orientations, we are one nation, one people.

portrait-ben-loweBen Lowe is a candidate for U.S. Congress and the author of Green Revolution: Coming Together to Care for Creation (IVP 2009) based in Wheaton, IL, where he has worked as a community and campus organizer.

+ Ask the U.S. Senate to pass national immigration reform this year.

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