Drivers with shovels and rakes in the beds of your pickup trucks, beware. Devotees of the Virgin of Guadalupe, be on the lookout: That reflective sticker of the mother of Jesus you have on your car’s rear window could make you a target.
That’s the warning that comes to us from the National Lawyers Guild, which earlier this month released a report that says some LAPD officers stop drivers who look like immigrants just to check and see if they’re licensed.
Undocumented immigrants can’t get driver’s licenses. When they’re stopped by the cops, their vehicles are impounded for 30 days.
“Something is going on here,” said Cynthia Anderson Barker, an attorney for the group. Many immigrants are stopped for “pretext” violations, like not having a ladder secured correctly, she said. “But when they get the ticket, it’s only for failure to have a license.”
Impound costs can reach $1,500 or more, causing many immigrant drivers to lose their vehicles.
But there’s something implied in the report that to me is just as important, because it involves millions of people in Greater L.A. who are legal residents and U.S. citizens. And that’s this: Apparently, there are police officers who think they know what an immigrant looks like.
I have no doubt that this is true — because in L.A., many people think they can spot the immigrant in a crowd. And I offer as proof my own experiences as an Angeleno.
Here are my keys; park the car, a total stranger once told me in front of a restaurant. A city Building and Safety inspector once confused me for a construction worker — while I stood in my own home.
Most recently, I was standing on the sidelines of my son’s soccer match in lovely Arcadia. There was a man selling ice cream about 20 feet away. At least three other parents, none of them Latino, stood between me and a cart covered with pictures of Popsicles and Drumsticks.
“Can I have an ice cream?” a boy of about 8 asked me.
Flummoxed and a little hurt, I gathered all the adult calm I could muster and said: “See that guy over there in the baseball cap? Standing behind the cart? I think he can help you.”
I’m pretty sure that boy didn’t have a prejudiced, “ethnic profiling” bone in his body. He sees the world through innocent eyes. And when he looks around L.A., he sees people of Mesoamerican heritage selling ice cream and doing other low-paid jobs.
So if some officers are stopping L.A. drivers with garden tools more often, it isn’t necessarily evidence of any inherent maliciousness. More often, it’s simply a reflection of the real ethnic and class divisions in the city, and the way they’ve permeated our collective psyche.
Officers know they’re not supposed to stop someone just on suspicion of not having a license — you have to have probable cause of another violation. But they’re also sworn to protect the public. Statistics and common sense tell them that unlicensed drivers are more likely to be bad drivers, so they’re less likely to allow a driver who looks as though he doesn’t have a license get away with a broken taillight.
Some people might call that racism, but I wouldn’t. To me, it’s just your average Joe dealing with the messy contradictions and inherent hypocrisy of a society that won’t allow thousands of working people full legal rights while willingly accepting the fruit of their labor.
Those of us who’ve lived in L.A. a long time marvel at how the LAPD has changed: It now has more Latino officers than white. Those officers patrol a city with a large Latino plurality.
I haven’t been stopped by the LAPD in ages. But then again, the kind of car I drive loudly announces my status among the cultural elite: a hybrid with a bumper sticker that proclaims “Book People.” (It’s the name of a Texas bookstore.)
The other day, a certain young Latino made fun of my car and its bumper sticker. Then he pointed out some things in my living room: a copy of the New Yorker, an iPad. For a Latino guy, he sarcastically declared, I sure do have a lot of “white” stuff.
Of course, none of those objects are inherently “white” — having them is another reflection of my class status. But to a lot of young Latinos, being well-off and being white are linked, for the simple reason that when they meet well-off people, they’re most often white.
If you’re a Latino person in L.A., no matter how well-off or educated you are, you know deep in your soul that there’s really only one thing that separates you from that illegal immigrant who can’t get a license: the good fortune to have an ambitious ancestor who came here 20, 30 or 50 years ago.
That’s why Latinos identify with the “plight” of the undocumented immigrant. And why we keep quiet as our city becomes a slightly more dangerous place to live — because a city where it’s easier to own a car without taking a driving test surely can’t be safer, can it?
“We should honor our history by welcoming people and taking these people out of the shadows,” Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa said last month, referring to illegal immigrants as he explained his decision to support an end to the 30-day impound policy.
Villaraigosa, the son of a Mexican immigrant, broke this news to Isaias Alvarado, a reporter for La Opinion, which has an 85-year history of defending immigrant causes.
Alvarado told me he was surprised. Just last year, in response to a La Opinion investigation on the effect of impounds on immigrant drivers, the mayor had said there was nothing he could do.
“We live in a country where we have to follow the law,” the mayor had said then.
And we live in a city of hypocrisies. Clearly its mayor is of two minds.
So am I.