The Sloppiest Crusade: Will Arizona’s anti-immigration legislative frenzy spread to Utah?

Some of us thought that Brigham Young’s Avenging Angels were the last bastion of organized vigilantism in the great state of Utah. We harbored romantic images wherein three of Brother Brigham’s wives – a brain, a tomboy and a sexpot – would be frequently given dangerous, sexy assignments through some kind of primitive speaking tube. “Good morning, Brigham,” they would say in a playful cadence. “Good morning, Angels,” Brother Brigham would reply. “Girls, I need to you get rid of some pesky Ute Indians today.”

But it turns out that vigilantism is alive and well in our lovely Deseret. While 2010’s citizen sentinels may not be three centerfold dolls in ankle-length floral-print dresses running errands for their polygamist husband, to say that the state is completely bereft of presumptive individuals willing to take the law into their own hands would be erroneous.    After all, just recently, an anonymous group which would only identify itself as “Concerned Citizens of the United States” published and distributed a list of 1,300 Utahan individuals whom they suspect to be in the country illegally. The 30-page list, distributed July 11, contains addresses, phone numbers, social security numbers and in some cases medical information.  This is, of course, the kind of information that is supposed to be kept private and be protected by our government – which would imply that someone among the Concerned Citizens of the United States has pulled a pretty sizable no-no in acquiring and dispersing the said information. But, hey, that’s how we know they’re vigilantes, right? Batman and The Punisher break all kinds of laws, too! Of course, they’re fighting dangerous supervillains like The Joker – not dishwashers and gardeners working under the table.

It would seem that this is a case of Utah’s conservatives trying to keep up with the proverbial Joneses directly south of us. In late April of this year, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer signed SB1070 – the controversial state law which would make failure to carry immigration papers illegal and give local police very broad power to detain anyone they deem reasonably suspect of being in the country illegally.   Although the law doesn’t go into effect until July 29, it has sparked a veritable brushfire of acrimonious debate all across the nation and has even inspired other states to begin taking similar measures. Utah Governor Gary Herbert has stated that he expects to sign similar legislation this year, and rumors of an upcoming Utah law which would adopt policy similar to Arizona’s have spread all over the state.

So far, no explicit measures have been taken on the part of the Utah State Legislature. Perhaps this is why the infamous list came with a cover letter which demanded that state officials “do [their] job and stop making excuses.”  The job suggested by the Concerned Citizens of the United States is ultimately the deportation of all 1,300 names on the list.

Even if Utah law officials were to comply, however, aspects of the document have already been identified as questionable.  Some of the phone numbers provided on the list were disconnected or were answered by a completely different person than specified. Some of the individuals listed are not only in total compliance with immigration laws, but are actually being granted official citizenship in this country as soon as next month. In some cases, the medical information provided, beyond being a gross invasion of personal privacy, seems superfluous and not helpful in the hoped-for apprehension of the supposed illegals. One woman was noted as having borne a child in April, which was, for whatever reason to the authors of the list, pertinent information on July 11, when the list was delivered.

Even the recipients of the list have been somewhat inconsistent. The cover letter claimed that the list had been sent to the Department of Homeland Security, the governor, state lawmakers, police departments and local media outlets. It would, however, seem that some of the recipients listed, in reality, did not get a copy of their own.

By all accounts, it would seem that the Concerned Citizens of the United States, who apparently authored this document, are a group of disorganized government employees. They have attempted to take the law into their own hands by producing a questionable, inaccurate document which ultimately does nothing aside from violate state and federal privacy laws.   Based on some of the larger inconsistencies within the document, it would seem that the authors’ modus operandi was to scour some sort of government database for whatever Latino surnames they could find and then write down their sensitive information.

Yet the Concerned Citizens of the United States, however sloppy their vigilantism may in fact be, have provided Utah’s citizens a great service. Rumors continue to spread of the Beehive State soon taking after Arizona in its actions toward illegal immigration. If the groups like the Utah Minutemen, the Patrick Henry Caucus and the Eagle Forum have their way, policemen will be regularly haranguing individuals for their documents before the end of the year.   We now have this document, this strange and inaccurate list, to serve as a sort of microcosm of Arizona’s SB 1070 and hopefully illustrate to Utah’s citizens the pitfalls and problems with such a policy in both race relations and legal jurisdiction.   The fact that the list is largely made up of people from Hispanic or Latino background is analogous to the obvious racial profiling that will accompany Arizona’s SB 1070 if fully enacted. Police officers will be allowed and encouraged to detain and question anyone who can be reasonably suspected of being an illegal alien.    If a highway patrolman notices that a car is swerving dangerously all over the road, he or she has reason to suspect that the operator of that car is intoxicated and thus in violation of drinking and driving laws. It’s called “probable cause” and it’s a very important concept in law enforcement. But how does an individual act in a manner that suggests he or she is in the country illegally?  It’s impossible. None of the very well-known stereotypes about illegal immigrants are, by themselves, illegal.

And yet, SB 1070 and similar bills would empower an officer to question and detain any individual who falls under that officer’s personal view of how an illegal alien is identified. This  would realistically have to be based on certain stereotypes, largely being ethnic in nature.

All of the sudden speaking with a Mexican accent, having a tan complexion, blasting Tejano music out of your truck or working at a taco cart would be a legitimate “probable cause.”  And will the demand for documentation and the threat of detainment stop with people who fit those descriptions?   Although many people view the bill as largely directed toward the country’s Hispanic population, the police could certainly detain a person they suspect to have illegally immigrated from Canada. Are the police going to routinely harass any person who wears an Edmonton Oilers jersey or anyone overheard referring to ham as “back bacon”?  When does it stop being “reasonable suspicion” or “probable cause” and start being straight-up racial profiling?

Just like the list, the bill’s legality is also questionable in terms of jurisdiction. Like it or lump it, creating that list is a vigilante action. Ordinary citizens went above the heads of their own government and attempted to take actions which are reserved for law enforcement officials.   While the authors of the list may feel that local police and immigration officers are largely ineffectual in their pursuit and prosecution of illegal immigrants, it is still illegal to publicize the information that the Concerned Citizens of the United States did in their document.   To put it simply, two wrongs do not make a right. It’s not romantic, like in the Batman comics. When citizens take the law into their own hands in real life, the police consider those actions just as illegal as the actions the vigilante is attempting to curb. They don’t just build a bat signal and install a special phone line for any ordinary person who tries to perform the job assigned to the police.

On a larger scale, Arizona’s SB 1070 is guilty of the same offense. While some may feel that the federal government is not taking proper measures to secure out nation’s borders, it does not change the fact that immigration policy is ultimately the federal government’s department and not the concern of state legislators. This is probably why the federal government is taking legal action against Arizona’s proposed bill.   On July 6, the Federal Justice Department cited a statement made by Supreme Court Justice Hugo Black in 1941:

“The supremacy of the national power in the general field of foreign affairs, including power over immigration, naturalization and deportation, is made clear by the Constitution, was pointed out by authors of The Federalist in 1787, and has since been given continuous recognition by this Court.”

Basically, individual states are not allowed to make up their own immigration laws, especially since our borders on all sides span multiple states. Hypothetically, if California and Texas draft laws which are lax in comparison to Arizona’s proposed bill, it would only mean that illegal immigrants from Mexico and points further south would flood those states. It would not stop illegal immigration, but rather divert the flow into other sectors of the country.   If the ultimate goal is to keep people from entering the country illegally, then the country is in need of a policy equally applicable in all states, from Arizona to Rhode Island. Such a policy, obviously, could only be drafted and enacted by the federal government. By drafting its own immigration law, Arizona went above the heads of a higher law in the land. By definition, this is a vigilante action.

Most people agree that there are problems with our country’s legislation and action toward illegal immigration. Some argue that the immigration process is marred by and bureaucratic nonsense, and that removing the hoops one has to jump through to obtain a green card, will deter illegal immigration. Others believe that the country has enough people within its borders and that the answer to illegal immigration lies in a giant electrified fence running the border. Both sides believe that current immigration policies and procedures are by and large inadequate.

When individuals, groups or even states take matters into their own hands, the results are ham-fisted, and, in many cases, so ridiculous that they cause a combination of jeering laughter and eye-twitching outrage.  Whether you’re printing an illegal and inaccurate 30-page document at Kinko’s and mailing it to a random scattering of state officials and reporters, or you’re going above the heads of the Federal government and drafting a law that makes racial profiling totally okay within the borders of your state, you’re still a vigilante. Not the good kind, from the DC or Marvel Universe, but the bad kind: the foolish kind that tries to fight a limping, ineffectual system with a sloppy, laughable crusade.

It is unclear whether or not Utah state officials are going to utilize the information provided them by the Concerned Citizens of the United States. It is hoped that most legislators and police officers are using the 30-page document to its fullest potential – as a doorstop, coaster or doodling paper during a boring meeting. It is further hoped that Arizona’s SB 1070 will find similar application in the Utah State Legislature.

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