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For San Diego Latinos who aren’t citizens of this country, racial profiling by the police is a lurking menace in everyday life.
It’s a risk that threatens to pull folks from their homes and families at the drop of a hat.
At any time, they could find themselves yanked back to a country many haven’t visited since infancy.
It happens like this:
A woman is driving her child to school one morning. She is pulled over for an expired tag. The officer has her car towed because the woman doesn’t have a driver’s license. Because of her appearance and limited English, an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is called in to “translate.” The ICE agent arrests her for being in the U.S. without proper documents and deports her to Mexico. A relative comes to care for her U.S.-born child.
A juvenile probationer lives with his foreign-born parents. A probation officer arrives to do a home visit. Based on the family’s appearance, the officer decides to call in an ICE agent, who arrives to question not just the parents, but any other relatives who live there. All are deported, leaving the young probationer at home alone.
A child disappears and police launch a search. They broadcast a description of the van they suspect carried the child away. A Latino — a legal resident — thinks he saw it. But he doesn’t come forward because his wife and children are all undocumented. The missing child is later found murdered.
As an attorney, I often see police reports that say a suspect was of “Hispanic appearance.” What is that exactly?
Hispanics appear in all shades of brown — darker from the Caribbean, Veracruz and South America, lighter from the many German, Irish, French and Italian immigrants who arrived in Latin America and passed on blonde hair and blue or green eyes.
A recent survey commissioned by San Diego Magazine and KPBS asked “How do you think the average San Diegan would describe the average Hispanic?” The answers included “illegal,” “burden on society,” “lazy,” and “drunk.” Too often, the attitudes and beliefs that these words convey shape the thinking of officers who engage in racial profiling.
Lack of understanding and fear are what drive these officers to default toward profiling. The police departments throughout our county need to do a better job training their officers, and need to root out those few who give the many a bad rap.
It can’t stop there, though. Department higher-ups need to make it safe for the officers who have so far refused to cross the “thin blue line” to report misconduct. The bystanders see fellow officers engaging in racial profiling but say nothing, or worse, lie about what they saw.
These officers, both the offenders and the observers, betray their oaths and the trust placed in them by the public — including the very people so coldly profiled.
Victor Manuel Torres is an attorney and board member of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association. Torres’ commentary has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.