| Bexar County Sheriff Ralph Lopez (right) stands with Sergeant Mark Gibson at the Bexar County Jail. (Photo by Mark Greenberg)
Politicians must be seen as doing something important for the voter. The fact of the matter is that we have politicians that are not doing anything for voters, but they're doing much for their corporate and rich campaign donors. So they need to come up with some alternate story that makes them appear to be serving the popular interest. One way they do that is to define the popular interest in racist terms. They construct a specter of an immigrant threat to which they can perform a defense by passing these draconian bills. Politicians get mileage through this theater. But then the policies go into effect and have real impact on people's lives.
— Christian Parenti, author of The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America From Slavery to the War on Terror
A brown-skinned man - Latino or Arab, it's hard to tell - gets on a bus. A dark-complected woman, maybe Pakistani, enters a convenience store. A black man - from Birmingham or is it Sudan? - stops at a red light.
Under the CLEAR Act, local police - not only federal immigration officials - could stop them, and if they are discovered to be undocumented immigrants, could detain and "remove" them from the United States.
The Clear Law Enforcement for Criminal Alien Removal Act, known by its clever Capitol Hill acronym, the "CLEAR Act," exemplifies a political atmosphere that is increasingly hostile to foreigners. By condoning racial profiling and endowing local law enforcement with federal powers, the CLEAR Act represents a dramatic - and sinister - change in immigration policy.
The CLEAR Act would force states to authorize all state and local law enforcement personnel "to investigate, apprehend, detain, or remove aliens in the United States." In other words, everyone from a state trooper to the Bexar County Constable to the San Antonio Police - and even the Park Police - would have the same power as federal immigration officers to arrest and detain illegal immigrants. In addition to fighting crime, local law enforcement would be responsible for enforcing complex federal immigration law, which, despite the orange jumpsuits and detention doled out to its violators, is a civil offense, not criminal.
If states fail to comply with the CLEAR Act, they could lose millions of dollars in federal funding.
According to Christian Parenti, author of The Soft Cage: Surveillance in America from Slavery to the War on Terror, politicians use legislation such as the CLEAR Act to appeal to the fears of white suburban voters by "conjuring up an immigrant threat" and then proposing laws to repress it.
U.S. Representative Charlie Norwood (R-Georgia) did just that when he introduced the CLEAR Act in July. The bill quickly gained the co-sponsorship of 111 more House members, including Republican Lamar Smith, whose 21st Congressional District includes parts of Bexar County. Last month, a Senate version of the bill was introduced and has 27 co-sponsors. Any vote or action on the bill will most likely be postponed until Congress returns in January.
Similarly, in advocating for the bill, Representative Norwood fueled voters' fears of future terrorist attacks by claiming that: "3,800 `illegal aliens` from countries with known ties to al Qaeda ... cannot be found." To bolster his position, Norwood even tried to play on a woman's fear of being raped, equating the CLEAR Act with a surefire way of sweeping rapists off the streets: "`L`ast year, seven females in the Miami area have been victimized by a vicious, brutal criminal. Thankfully, the local law enforcement authorities in the area believe they now have their man, a citizen of Honduras. Had the CLEAR Act been on the books last October, the women ... would have never fallen victim."
While the CLEAR Act stirs up racist anxieties among the representatives' white voter base, in practice, it is unlikely that it would protect those voters from crime or terrorism. Mountains of studies and years of experience in community policing have shown that effective law enforcement relies on fostering strong ties to communities that are often victimized by crime or whose residents have information about suspects. If people fear that their contact with officers could result in their (or that of their loved ones) arrest and deportation, the CLEAR Act could undermine or even eliminate the ability of police to elicit information from communities,
While the CLEAR Act won't protect citizens from terror or crime, it will give state and local law enforcement the green light to racially profile. Such profiling will likely affect undocumented foreign nationals, documented foreign nationals, and citizens of color - anyone who fits the "immigrant" profile. Racial profiling is such a clear consequence of the CLEAR Act that a section of the bill grants immunity to personnel and agencies for civil rights violations. In other words, the drafters of the bill expect the law to be implemented through racial profiling - and condone it.
"There is no way the federal government can train all local officers sufficiently in immigration law to avoid civil rights violations," says Lee Terán, clinical professor of law and director of the Immigration and Human Rights Clinic at St. Mary's University School of Law. "They can't even avoid it with their own officers. `The violations` would multiply astronomically. In fact, the CLEAR Act allows local officers to violate the Constitution and then waive any damage action against them."
Given the large Latino population in San Antonio - nearly 60 percent of its residents - the racial profiling resulting from the CLEAR Act would have serious consequences for the city's citizenry. These ramifications prompted U.S. Representative Ciro Rodriguez, who is also chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, to lead the opposition to the CLEAR Act in the House. "It opens the door to discrimination and we will start seeing racial profiling and other civil rights violations," says Rodriguez, who represents part of San Antonio and Bexar County.
Even some police don't want the onus of enforcing immigration laws foisted upon them, nor to come under fire for racially profiling citizens.
"I'm totally against `the CLEAR Act`. It plays the race card, and from that perspective it is just a bad act," says Bexar County Sheriff Ralph Lopez. "We will not go out and create probable cause just because we think this person, who is dark-complected or speaks with an accent or dresses different, should be automatically questioned about their legal status. That is a total violation of due process."
Like a horror movie, the political theater played out by the CLEAR Act diverts voters' attention from the real sources of their insecurities - stagnating job markets and wages, massive cuts in public services, and a foreign policy destined to create more security threats. As these politicians implement policies that generate more insecurity, while looting the federal treasury, they will need more thrillers to misdirect voters' fears. Unfortunately, as Terán says, "we are a nation of immigrants that fears immigrants," so immigrants will be a perennial villain in such political theatrics. •