The “show me your papers” provision was the only significant survivor of the Supreme Court’s decision Monday to strike down parts of of Arizona’s immigration laws. This solitary provision may not last very long. The Supreme Court’s majority (excluding the reactionary trio: Thomas, Scalia and Alito) decided that even if constitutional, the permission for local police to ask about immigration status might be subject to reversal if – when finally implemented – the practice proves to be discriminatory.
Proof that implementing this law is unfair to Latinos and Latinas is inevitable say my fellow Catholics at the Spanish-language Mass. While the august justices in Washington may view these cases from the ivory tower of constitutional legal principles, we Latinos and Latinas confront the nitty-gritty of under-trained, underpaid and over-eager police who often react with bias, prejudice, ignorance and feel they can get away with “pushing people around.” This is the case of the discredited Arizona Sheriff Joe Arapio. It is all but certain that the conduct of “bad apples” will provide ammunition to strip local law enforcement of this power to ask for papers from those they “think” are “illegal” human beings.
Immigration laws like “show me your papers” affect not only undocumented persons, but even Latinos and Latinas who are born as U.S. citizens. Sociologists have used the term “stigmatization” to explain this phenomenon. In certain environments, it is argued, a whole class of people can be identified as offensive or inferior. They are stigmatized because of the way they are perceived, not for what they have done. In other words, they are “pre-judged” without factual basis – the definition of prejudice. Moreover, it affects the way they feel about themselves.
To avoid stigmatization, some Hispanics distance themselves from the targeted stereotypes. “I’m Puerto Rican (born as an American citizen), not Dominican (likely immigrant status)” is one refrain I have heard. Republican Linda Chavez told me in an interview long ago that because her ancestors came to New Mexico directly from Spain, she had nothing in common with “Mexican people,” thus distancing herself from stigmatization. Leaving Cuba during the Battista regime and returning because Fidel Castro took power was such a stigma to the parents of Senator Marco Rubio that the family history was rewritten to make them (falsely) into heroic exiles from Communism, and not just your run-of-the-mill economic immigrants.
But faith communities foster a different take on stigmatization: it is not to be avoided, it is to be uprooted. Believers belong to churches, whether Catholic or otherwise, in order to find community. Following the Christian teaching that we are all brothers and sisters to each other, what is done to the “least of our brethren” (Mt. 25:31-46) is done to Christ Himself. Thus, rather than succumb to a legal notion that each individual case is separate from all others, we react to injustice with the conviction that we are bound together in solidarity with others much as hands and feet, eyes and ears, are integral parts of the same body (I Cor.12:16-21). Based on studies for more than a quarter-century, I consider our faith communities to have provided the most effective counterbalance to excessive police zeal (including federal INS agents) against Hispanics.
People of faith may use biblical language to describe unjust immigration enforcement, but these abuses have consequences in social and political terms. For instance, pundits are now arguing whether or not immigration is the most important issue to Latinos and Latinas voting in the 2012 elections. But compartmentalizing immigration as a solitary matter divorced from the economy or education is contradicted by the way these measures interact in the real life experience of tens of millions. Jobs, schools, and housing all revolve around a status that is not stigmatized.
More than ACLU lawyers in the courts, people of faith will provide the major push-back against an unjust enforcement of the “show me your papers” provision that, I predict, will yet topple this law.