National Opinions

Ruben Navarrette Jr.: Latinos know racial profiling

If you think it's embarrassing for an African-American to have to identify himself to the police while in his own house, imagine how humiliating it is for U.S.-born Latinos to have to prove their citizenship in their own country.

With racial profiling in the news lately, it's worth noting that America's largest minority has to endure the practice, too — but with a twist. Not only, according to several studies, do Latinos get pulled over by police and have their cars searched at a higher rate than whites. They also sometimes suffer the indignity of having to prove that they have the legal right to even be in the United States.

Things get really insulting when the question is asked in the Southwest, perhaps in Arizona where some Latino families have lived for eight generations, or in New Mexico where Latinos trace their roots back 500 years.

There have been moments in history when things went haywire. The most infamous example is "Operation Wetback" in 1954, when the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service set out to remove 1 million illegal immigrants by sweeping Mexican- American neighborhoods and conducting random identification checks of anyone who looked Mexican. Many of those deported were U.S. citizens. Back then, the Border Patrol got help from local police agencies.

This ugly fad is making a comeback. Some local agencies are itching to play Border Patrol agent.

Not a good idea, according to police chiefs who recently urged Congress to bar local police from immigration enforcement. Updating recommendations by the leaders of more than 50 urban police departments, the chiefs — including John Timoney of Miami, Art Acevedo of Austin, Texas, and Art Venegas, formerly chief of the Sacramento Police Department — also urged that illegal immigrants be given legal status so that law enforcement can keep track of them.

A recent report from the Police Foundation, a nonprofit organization that spent a year meeting with police officials and community representatives from around the country, concluded that law enforcement works best when everyone stays within their jurisdiction.

According to the report, when local police carry out immigration enforcement, it often undermines — rather than preserves — public safety.

Once trust is eroded and word gets out that a community of immigrants won't talk to police — not even when they've been victimized — predators will seek them out, and crime will go up.

Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, a former Arizona governor, said recently that her department would revamp the controversial program that allows state and local police agencies to make immigration arrests. Napolitano wants to require the agencies to clear plans for immigration sweeps with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement and coordinate with ICE agents before releasing information about such sweeps to the news media. She also wants to prevent agencies from arresting people whose only infraction is being in the country illegally. Sounds like a plan.