So I was on Facebook the other day and noticed a link posted by a friend I went to college with: Is Virginia the Next Arizona? My friend, now a law student at Ohio State, had prefaced the link with: “Be careful.”
Be careful, indeed. Arizona is certainly a hot-button word these days, but my home state of Virginia isn’t exactly known for straying away from controversy. Remember that awkward presentation of a slavery-free version of Civil War history to celebrate “Confederate History Month,” back in April? Yeah, I wish I didn’t either.
Virginia lawmakers are now considering their own version of Arizona’s (in)famous SB1070, but are hoping to avoid the legal snafus and public relations nightmare that befell the Southwestern state. The Virginia policy is described by Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli (pictured above) as “discretionary,” because police officers would only be urged to ask about immigration status, not required to, as they were in the Arizona law.
This reminds me of the one and only time I was ever stopped by a cop. It was the summer after my freshman year at William and Mary, and I was coming home around 11 pm from a friend’s house. I’m the type of driver that would make grannies seem rebellious, so I was very surprised when I saw the blue and red lights flickering behind me. Me? I thought. Surely not. I was in a neighborhood, and I was definitely not going over 25 miles per hour. A siren blip jarred me out of my uncertainty and I hurriedly pulled over. Our conversation was as follows:
Officer: License and registration, please. [pause] What’s the name on this? Is it male or female?
Me: Uh, male. That’s my dad.
Officer: Your dad. Uh huh. You sure?
Me [confused]: Yes.
Officer: Does he live with you, or do you live with him?
Me: I live with him.
Officer: You sure? You sure that you live with him?
Me [progressively more confused]: …Yes?
Officer: How long have you lived here?
Me [thinking he meant the neighborhood]: About a year.
Officer: Oh, okay. [begins to walk back to his vehicle]
Me: Officer, would you mind telling me what I did wrong?
Officer: Your front left headlight is out.
Me: Oh. I’m sorry, I didn’t know. [relieved that it wasn’t a moving violation, so I would only be given a warning]
Officer: [returns] Here’s your ticket and that’s your court date.
Me: I’m sorry, a court date? For what?
Officer: For your ticket. That’s your court date, or you can pay the fine.
Me: How much is the fine?
Officer: I can’t tell you, just call this number here for the amount.
Me: I’m sorry, but I can’t make this court date, I’ll be back in school.
Officer: Call the number. Just call it, okay? It has all the information you need.
And, just like that, he was gone. I sat in my little car, clenching my fists, the fierce light from his headlights bouncing off my rearview mirror straight into my eyes, blinding me with injustice long after he’d driven away.
In the days that followed, my phone calls to the police station and sheriff’s office went unheeded. “I’d like to report an officer for inappropriate conduct,” I’d say to every person and answering machine. If I actually managed to reach a human being, the response was, “The person you need to talk to is out of town,” or to give me a number that led to an answering machine. I gave up after a while and just paid the ticket, since my court date was set for after my return to school. As far as I know, that cop is still out there, freely asking the ‘foreigners’ that he stops about how long they’ve lived ‘here’ before issuing a ticket.
My story is just one in thousands of cop stories that happen every year in northern Virginia. It is, by far, among the tamer ones. But this much is clear: cops take care of their own out in Loudoun County. No one’s going to listen to some random little Asian girl complaining that an officer treated her inappropriately. Especially not some little Asian girl who mistakenly said she’d only been ‘here’ a year because she was too naïve to realize that people still judged others by their faces, heard accents where there are none.
You can argue that the cop’s questioning of my immigration status did no harm. He’s just trying to keep us safe, right? But still, I can’t help but wonder: Would he still have issued that ticket if I had answered differently? Would he still have asked those questions if I had looked different? Why was it necessary to ask those questions, anyway? I mean, I realize that I cut a pretty threatening figure at 5’1”, especially in a William and Mary T-shirt and jeans. Was he suspicious of my non-regional dialect and perfect grammar? That must be it.
So, go ahead, Virginia. Urge your cops to ask about immigration status. No big deal; they already do. It’s such a great idea. But you need to put in an efficient process for legal and rightful Americans to protest the way they are treated at the hands of those who claim to be keeping us safe. It’s absolutely outrageous that US citizens come up against such roadblocks to report discrimination made by law enforcement officers.
Virginia: be careful. Be careful, because this little Asian girl isn’t so naïve any more, and neither are the hundreds of thousands of other minority-Americans in the state.