Racial Profiling in Policing in Arizona, a Decade After SB 1070

By Elyssa Creary-Scher

When one thinks about racial profiling in Arizona, the controversial Senate Bill 1070 enacted in 2010 is quick to come to mind. This bill, alongside House Bill 2162, created new crimes for state immigration, extended the authority of law enforcement to enforce immigration laws, and imposed greater penalties for violations of immigration laws. SB 1070 was met with much criticism across not only Arizona but the rest of the United States as being racist and that it encouraged racial profiling. According to one activist, despite lawmakers’ intent for the law to target undocumented immigrants, the reality was that “the true targets will be people with brown skin, dark hair, and dark eyes, regardless of their citizenship status in the United States.” Ten years later, Arizona is still reeling from the consequences of this law.

Before SB 1070 could go into effect, however, a judge granted an injunction that struck down four controversial portions of the bill:

  • The creation of a state crime to reside in the United States without legal permission;
  • The creation of a state crime to work in the United States without legal permission;
  • The requirement that law enforcement officers verify the legal status of all individuals who were arrested or detained; and
  • The authorization of law enforcement officers to arrest individuals without a warrant based on probable cause of unlawful presence.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit affirmed this decision, and in 2012, SB 1070 reached the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-3 decision, the Supreme Court upheld the rulings on three of the four portions because of the federal government’s near-exclusive authority of “field preemption” to govern immigration standards. The fourth provision – often nicknamed the “show me your papers” provision – was permitted to go into effect. The Court cited language from the law that prohibits police from considering national origin or race and made it clear that the key to this provision surviving in the future “will be whether it is interpreted in a way that does not prolong detentions of people who are stopped by police.” My personal experience, however, suggests that this provision failed to meet the Court’s survival requirement.

I was stopped by police in Tucson around 2014 after jaywalking at a red light. Being a native New Yorker, jaywalking is something which I ordinarily wouldn’t think twice about (assuming that traffic is safe). When I was stopped, officers asked me questions like whether I had any warrants out against me, where I was from, and what my immigration status was. When they reluctantly let me continue with my day, I felt more confused than anything. As I was later recounting the incident to a friend, he said, “Oh. I wonder if they thought you were undocumented.” My confusion turned to frustration; I’m biracial, so my skin is brown, but I’m not of Hispanic origin. To think that I may not have been stopped for jaywalking if my skin was a different color angered me; the fact that my stop was permissible by police and not seen as a form of racial profiling just felt outrageous.

A decade after the passage of SB 1070, Arizona is still seeing racial profiling in too many police interactions that turn fatal. Calls for reform of Arizona police – particularly Phoenix and other Valley police – are not new. As the Black Lives Matter movement grows throughout the nation, calls for reform grow louder following local deaths at the hands of police, such as Dion Johnson and James Garcia in Phoenix and Carlos Ingram López in Tucson. In addition to the heightened concerns about fatal interactions with police, a report by the ACLU found that minorities were more likely than whites to be stopped by DPS on Arizona highways, searched, and held for longer periods of time. Just last year, students at the University of Arizona gathered to protest how campus police handled a racist attack on a black student.

Policing with racial undertones seems to be getting worse in Arizona, despite calls for reform and, more recently, abolition. Representative Ruben Gallego (D-Ariz) called a recent House bill for police reform “a first step in looking at all the issues between law enforcement and minority communities.” Both House Republicans and Democrats were eager to pass legislation that improved police misconduct following George Floyd’s death, but efforts led to a stalemate due to partisan finger-pointing. Because of this, the bill does not go as far as Democrats like Gallego hoped that it might, but it creates a start for our country to progress. Equal treatment between minorities and non-minorities by law enforcement will not be achieved until more comprehensive police reform plans are implemented. This includes the repeal of SB 1070, which continues to disproportionately affect Hispanics and brown-skinned individuals under the law.

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