The Immigration Law Riot

It isn't just happening in L.A.


On May 1, a phalanx of Los Angeles cops, reacting to a minor provocation from some people who may not have even been involved with the larger assemblage's purpose (what the cops called "hurling missiles" at them; people on the scene report them as empty plastic bottles), strode into a group of people gathered in MacArthur Park, rallying for immigration law reform.

They swung their billy clubs and fired off their "non-lethal" beanbag and rubber bullet weapons. Helicopters overhead shouted (in English) orders to disperse—after the cops were already clearing house. The police injured 24 people, including four reporters (see some local Fox News video). One man, a UCLA food service employee, has already filed suit, claiming a cop came up to him while he was picnicking in the park and, when he tried to talk to the cop rather than scurrying away as ordered, was backhanded across the jaw with a baton, which he claims broke his jaw.

The reason for the altercation was strangely apt. The gathering the cops were busting up was sponsored by the Multi-Ethnic Immigrant Workers Organizing Network (who have also filed a suit over the incident) and intended to support/celebrate the rights of immigrants, both legal and illegal.

The whole contretemps functioned as an ugly metaphor for American immigration politics writ large: an overuse of force in response to the actions of a very small number of bad actors (whose bad actions were not, in the grand scheme of things, particularly damaging anyway), one that adversely impacts many innocents. Helping prop up the metaphor, defenders of the police action have stressed not any inherent harm done by the victims being pushed around and hurt by the cops, but either group guilt for the bottle-tossing crimes of a handful or the paper violation of official ukases that do more to harm innocents than they do to stop any crime that harms others.

Immigration politics are a tricky issue for L.A., made all the more tricky now that the city is being sued by two different parties over one of the controversial centerpieces of its law enforcement policy vis a vis immigrants. L.A., ever since 1979, has had a policy, codified as "Special Order 40" when then-Chief Daryl Gates promulgated it. Its police do not go out of their way to enforce federal immigration law. The letter of Special Order 40 says: "Officers shall not initiate police action with the objective of discovering the alien status of a person."

This does not mean L.A. cops are forbidden from ever investigating the immigration status of arrested suspects; they can and do. But it does mean that immigration status won't usually be an issue with the local cops unless and until you are reasonably suspected of having broken some other law, and are already in custody.

The first suit, filed in California Superior Court last April by the conservative legal watchdog group Judicial Watch and scheduled to go to trial in late May, charges that the policy violates the Supremacy Clause and a 1996 law (8 U.S.C. 1373) that states that "a Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual."

The suit also quotes a 2001 report from a special commission investigating the LAPD which charges that in actual L.A. police culture, Special Order 40 is taken further than its letter. The LAPD customarily neglects to look into or inform the feds about the illegal immigrant status of even those they've arrested. Thus, Judicial Watch insists, the people of L.A. are being ill-served by an immigrant-coddling police who would rather have some measure of peace between themselves and the immigrant community (and pro-immigrant political lobbying groups) than enforce the law of the land.

The second suit, filed last month by Santa Ana attorney Dave Klehm, and supported by the Federal Immigration Reform and Enforcement Coalition, attacks the policy on a narrower ground: that it violates an obscure California health and safety statute which seems to command that all illegal immigrants arrested for drugs be turned over to the feds. It makes a certain sick sort of sense: if you are popped for one victimless crime, you need to be investigated for another one.

The "don't ask" policy when it comes to illegal immigrants and local policing is being attacked in L.A. because it is seen as the flagship for a policy that some proponents and opponents alike refer to as the "sanctuary city" policy. This is the notion, which has spread since being instituted in L.A. to over 30 other cities in 15 states, that local cops with huge immigrant communities are better served by not going out of their way to be vassals of federal power. (In the often-corrupt L.A. police context, some argue, it is also important so cops don't have a weapon with which to intimidate otherwise innocent people into saying whatever a cop wants them to say.) To the people behind the lawsuits, rather than being a tool to make local policing better focused on crimes that directly harm citizens' person and property, the policy is merely providing an inherently criminal class with a place where they can live out their inherently nefarious existences' without fear.

Fear is definitely a part of the immigration debate in America—given the lack of demonstrable harm caused by immigration as a national phenomenon, the recent spate of "get tougher" immigration law proposals on the state level are probably rooted more in ancient primate psychology or sheer partisan calculation than on reasonable fear. See the prominent Utah Republican calling for a resolution declaring illegal immigration to be a Satanic plot; see Lou Dobbs accusing them of causing a nonexistent rise in leprosy; see the Alabama proposal to take away all illegal immigrants' property.

Even some of the "soft on immigration" solutions on the table, like the proposal from organized farm interests to ensure that lots of current illegal farm workers get to stay here, have their dark sides. They are conditioned on the immigrants remaining locked to the land and their masters, er, employers, for a set amount of time. As Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Association, told the Wall Street Journal this week, "We have to make sure that when we get workers, they stay in agriculture." That is, immigrants who get legal under the proposed AgJOBS bill, will be legally forced to. The road to serfdom, indeed.

The federal Congress itself will be, Senate leader Harry Reid insists, hashing out some new comprehensive immigration reform this month. He is trying to bring back the bill the Senate passed, but failed to become law, last year, to the dismay of many Republicans who voted for it in the first place—but who now vow to stop it by any means necessary. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) makes a cynical but very possibly prescient comment this week, reported in National Journal, on what might then result: A fresh bill will be cobbled together that "will probably be seven to eight hundred pages that nobody has read. And then they'll attempt to move it rapidly. …If it passes here, it could go to the House….The president can sign it, and the American people wouldn't have any idea what's in it."

Whatever proposal passes, it is apt to contain some sort of dreadful new national-ID style requirement that will sell out the liberty and privacy of all Americans for the dubious benefits of making sure willing, but undocumented, people can't work for an American willing to hire them. However, as the behavior of the police in L.A. showed, when it comes to immigration law enforcement, inconveniencing or harming the many because of the (mostly imagined) sins of the few is business as usual.

Senior Editor Brian Doherty is author of This is Burning Man and Radicals for Capitalism: A Freewheeling History of the Modern American Libertarian Movement.

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