Virginia Considers Arizona Approach to Immigration

August 4, 2010

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.




A Virginia county already tried something like this in 2007, and it was a DISASTER:

The above link covered a movie that followed the entire situation.

That's right, Prince William County in Virginia went through the exact same legislation two years ago and the effects have been truly awful. People moved out in protest against the legislation, and that combined with the housing crisis a couple years ago, has spelled disaster for the economic future of that area.  There's an interesting documentary that a couple of film-maker friends of mine made called "9500 Liberty".  It's currently showing to sold-out audiences in Arizona. Incidentally, both film-makers are Asian American activists, and one of them, Annabel Park, is currently the leader of the Coffee Party. I highly suggest you interview them, I'm sure they'll have things to say that the readers of Hyphen Magazine might be interested in.    The documentary began as a youtube project and the scenes in the film are taken directly from the hundreds of clips you can find here: Coffee Party link.!/coffeeparty?ref=ts     Incidentally, this film also won the Audience Choice award in the Asian American International Film Festival I volunteered for in NYC. 
About two months ago, my younger brother was walking through an affluent neighborhood and an officer told him that he (my brother) did not belong in that neighborhood. There is a big problem when localities try to tackle a national issue like immigration. It creates greater problems than the ones that want to avoid in the first place. For example, take the Prince William County law that was passed two years ago. It made alot of hispanics, move out of the county and into neighboring ones. In this hard-working  and law-abbiding community also came these animals that call themselves gangsters. Loundoun County was the destination for the exodus of those fleeing, and the Loundoun County Police Department was nowhere near prepared. The result was a "summer of violence" as the newpaper called it that left several dead, and even more injured from violent crime.  One of those victims was my same younger brother who continues to be discriminated against with overt xenophobism. I'm grateful that he is still alive, but a drive-by shooting had never happened on such a large scale in my county. This is one of main issues when it comes to this short-sighted and poorly-planned policy initiatives, they don't take other communities into account. This is an issue that takes a nation-wide civil debate and some forward-thinking public policy crafting, not armed neo-nazi groups at the border or intimidation of those who just want to work. I don't blame some of the people who are angry about this issue. Being a partly assimilated Hispanic allows me to see both sides. Those angry about immigrants are angry because their communities have drastically changed over the years. Different immigrant groups bring different customs, they have diffirent values and they don't want to, nor can they truly know that they are changing the lives of those in their new communitiy. Another problem is that America is entirely too angry about everything right now. We are in a recession, unemployement is high and people are looking for scapegoats. Irresponsible and opportunistic people like Lou Dobbs, Sarah Palin, and Rush Limbaugh have made it part of their business models to profit by fanning the flames of this anger.    Ok, I am done. There is too much to say and the future for level-headed discussions on immigration look bleak right now.  
wow Oscar.    thanks for sharing your thoughts. it pains me to hear the news about the drive-by shootings, but I do believe a difference can be made when people understand the risks and see the consequences of the immigration legislation like the one in AZ.