SB 1070 Rips the ‘Welcome Mat’ Away From Legal Immigrants

This is a picture of me at the Tucson Festival of Books. SB 1070 would require that even here, while taking a picture with the wombat-cat, I could be "spot checked" for my immigration documents.

I am not Latina. I am not an illegal immigrant. All the same: SB 1070 terrifies me.

One of my biggest pet peeves about the national debate over SB 1070 is how the bill has been painted, by many who either support or oppose it, as an anti-Latino piece of legislation. Without a doubt, SB 1070 is intended to target illegal immigrants in Arizona, who arrive predominantly from Mexico; this can be deduced just from the preamble of the bill. It reads:

The provisions of this act are intended to work together to discourage and deter the unlawful entry and presence of aliens and economic activity by persons unlawfully present in the United States. 

However, SB 1070’s passage won’t just change the lives of illegal immigrants in Arizona. SB 1070 stands to seriously undermine the civil liberties of all Arizonans, regardless of whether or not we are (or look) Hispanic.

I am a Chinese-Canadian doctoral student at The University of Arizona, who is legally in the United States on a student visa. I am a well-educated, well-meaning, and contributing resident of Southern Arizona, who works in cancer and diabetes research. I pay state and federal income taxes to the United States of America. I own a house. I bring federal grant dollars to Southern Arizona via my work. I help raise the profile of the University as an academic institution through my research and teaching activities.

But, I am not a citizen or a permanent resident of the U.S.

I am in this country only at the mercy of U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement. To maintain status, I must be exceptionally careful to play by their rules. I find that it’s very difficult to convey the intricacies of navigating the American immigration system to someone who has never done so; but, imagine if the IRS had the power to detain or deport anyone who incorrectly filed their income taxes or who failed to maximize their deductions, and you’ll get some sense of what it’s like.

That’s not to say that I resent the procedures and paperwork associated with being a non-permanent resident alien residing in the United States. As an undergraduate student, I once was interrogated by a U.S. Border Patrol officer for accidentally allowing one of my travel signatures (which verifies that I am a full-time student and am allowed to travel away from campus) to lapse just past the allowed time. Consequently, I was denied reentry to return to school from Winter Break. Seeing the frustration on my face because my signature was approximately 2 days expired, the Border Patrol agent retorted, “Being in the United States is not a right. It’s a privilege.”

As harsh as the statement sounds, it is true. Since that day when I was granted a tourist visa to return to school and have my papers signed (and then return to the border to re-enter with the proper documentation), I have treated my presence in the United States as a privilege, and have worked diligently to maintain my status.

The requirements to maintain legal status include a mandate that I carry my immigration documents whenever I am within American borders (8 USC Sec. 1304(a)). Failure to comply results in a fine or imprisonment. However, resident aliens like myself  are reluctant to carry our passports everywhere: these papers are our lifeline. If any of these papers are lost, we face a hefty fine and a 3-month waiting period to have it replaced, during which time we are unable to travel far from home (or conduct some of our daily business). As a resident alien, I simply cannot lose my paperwork. Consequently, I struggle with this inherent Catch-22: how do I reconcile what is required of me by federal immigration law against the threat of having these documents lost or stolen?

Furthermore, we are sometimes simply unable to carry these documents around. My documents consist of a passport (containing my I-94 card) and my I-20 (two or three sheets of 8.5 x 11 paper). None of these documents are conveniently wallet-sized; in fact, I carry mine in a dedicated document holder approximately the length of my forearm. Federal law requires me to have these papers on my person at all time: even while I’m jogging at 5AM, walking the dog, hiking, swimming, at the movies, barbequeing with friends, or patronizing a bar or club during a night on the town. If I am doing any of these activities, I am required to have personal possession of my immigration papers. Being found without them (such as, for example, if I forgot them at home, or if my passport doesn’t conveniently fit into my swimsuit while I’m swimming laps) may be grounds for a misdemeanor charge under federal immigration law. 

This is where SB 1070 comes into play. In practice, SB 1070 would empower state and local police officers to enforce federal immigration law against legal resident aliens, and request proof that we have maintained our legal status. In essence, they are performing the work of U.S. Border Patrol agents, whom resident aliens expect to encounter while traveling. But, in this case, we now live in fear of being “spot checked” for our immigration papers on a daily basis, during routine encounters with state and local police officers. Any officer who finds us in violation of 8 United States Code Section 1304(e) could cause us to face misdemeanor charges and jeopardize our legal status.

Furthermore, in practice, SB 1070 would require that state and local police officers who have doubts about a suspect’s immigration status (because they cannot present their papers or act “suspiciously”) detain that suspect — perhaps indefinitely— until their immigration status can be verified federally. As a working graduate student and a legal resident alien, I am horrified by the prospect that a routine traffic stop might cause sudden imprisonment, without warning, for a day, a week, or longer as state or local police officers, virtually untrained in federal immigration law, struggle to figure out if my documents are legitimate (which they are). This threat of indefinite detainment would exist under SB 1070 for illegal immigrants, legal immigrants and bonafide citizens of the United States.

If the purpose of SB 1070 is to eliminate illegal immigration, why is it that legal residents of Arizona — both citizens and legal immigrants — are facing harassment and deportation under this bill? How is it that I, as a Chinese-Canadian legal resident alien who calls Arizona my home — and, who works and pays my taxes in this state — am facing a culture of veiled suspicion and open hostility towards my very presence here? 

The message that Arizona sends with SB 1070 is that people like me — highly-skilled foreigners who want to assimilate and work in America (and who are potentially on a path to citizenship) — are not welcome here. SB 1070’s intention is to curtail illegal immigration into this state, but in so doing, it also discourages legal immigrants from naturalizing and making Arizona our permanent home. SB 1070 sends the message to people like me that the services that we provide, the technologies that we invent, the jobs that we create, the education that we command, and the money that we spend in this state are simply not desired.

How long, I wonder, will it take for us legal immigrants to get the message? Being in America, and indeed, Arizona, is a privilege that we currently treasure — but, given this intolerant legislative climate set by bills like SB 1070, how long will that continue to be the case?

Cross-posted: Blog for Arizona

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