Ruling on Arizona’s immigration law leaves many questions unanswered

PHOENIX — If I’m traveling with other Latinos in a carpool will I be stopped?

Will you accept my Mexican-issued ID?

If I witness a crime, should I call the police?

One by one, Phoenix Police Chief Daniel Garcia tried to reassure the questioners gathered at a Phoenix high school, saying repeatedly that people would not be detained without reason under Arizona’s landmark immigration law.

Across the state, the law’s “show me your papers” provision upheld by the Supreme Court has created confusion and anxiety, and moved Latinos — both legal and illegal residents — to ask an overriding question: How can you promise we won’t be singled out because of how we look?

The law compels police to ask about the immigration status of people they stop for lawful reasons, if they suspect those people of being illegal immigrants. Garcia and officials say they will apply the law fairly.

But many meeting with the police chief were skeptical. Long after the meeting was over, a group gathered around a police officer and peppered him with more questions about IDs and traffic stops.

Phoenix Mayor Greg Stanton, a critic of the law, said the text of SB 1070 leaves plenty of room for questions.

“The law itself lacks clarity,” Stanton said Tuesday.

Stanton said Phoenix was prepared to “err on the side of protecting civil rights.” But he said it would probably take litigation “to establish the parameters of what is and is not constitutional under 1070.”

Russell Pearce, the former Republican state senator who sponsored the law, said it was “demeaning to law enforcement to assume they’re out there looking to racially profile.”

On the other hand, he said, “Those that are here illegally should worry. If they’re here illegally, they ought to be arrested.”

At La Campesina, a Spanish-language radio station in Phoenix and other cities, DJs have fielded dozens of calls from worried immigrants since the ruling was announced Monday.

“There are a lot of hypotheticals, a lot of ‘what if’ questions,” said Saul Madrid, education manager for the radio network.

Many of those questions revolved around whether driving without a license would lead to deportation. (Answer: It’s not clear.) The radio station brought in local officials and legal experts to respond to inquiries. But satisfactory answers are few and far between.

“The questions that people are asking are questions that the police cannot answer right now,” Madrid said.

SB 1070 requires local and state officers to tell Immigration and Customs Enforcement or Customs and Border Protection if they believe someone is in the country illegally. An official — typically over the phone — will verify the person’s immigration status, run a background check and decide whether federal authorities want to get involved.

The Department of Homeland Security only deals with “priority removals” — that is, illegal immigrants who just crossed the border, who have been deported before or who have been convicted of a crime. Department officials said most people stopped would not meet those criteria.

But if someone is a priority removal, ICE will issue a detainer and deport them once they have been released from local custody, officials said.

Lydia Hernandez, president of a local school board, said there was a shared sense among some Latinos that what police call routine traffic stops are really motivated by the type of car one drives, the number of people in the vehicle and — yes — whether they have brown skin.

“My routine traffic stop differs from a person in Scottsdale who is not my color,” she said, referring to the well-to-do community northeast of Phoenix. Arizona is 29.6% Latino.

The state board that governs police training distributed a video to all law enforcement agencies to teach agents how to enforce the law, with repeated reminders to avoid racial profiling.

“The reality is that the ethnic mix of our communities is such that race tells you nothing about whether or not a person is unlawfully in the United States,” lawyer Beverly Ginn says in the video.

A combination of factors can lead to reasonable suspicion, according to the video, including: having foreign identification, being in a place where illegal immigrants are known to congregate looking for work, traveling in tandem or in an overcrowded vehicle, type of clothing and significant difficulty communicating in English.

After SB 1070 was signed into law two years ago, Hugo Sanchez, 24, and his family began advocating for immigrants rights. Sanchez, his parents and two sisters are all illegal immigrants, but their anxieties have turned to a sense of empowerment with their activism, he said.

But Monday night, as Sanchez drove home with his mother from the community meeting at Carl Hayden Community High School, it was clear that his mother was fearful.

Maybe you shouldn’t drive as much anymore, she told him. Try to stay home. At least sell your old car and get a new one. A new car is less of a target, she said.

“I just stayed quiet,” Sanchez said Tuesday. “I started thinking, ‘What should I do? What’s next?’ ”

Times staff writer Laura J. Nelson in Los Angeles contributed to this report.