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Texas' immigration law is being challenged in court amid racial profiling concerns

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

A federal appeals court today heard arguments over the Texas immigration enforcement law known as SB4. It empowers local law enforcement to arrest and deport people who are in the state illegally. SB4 is currently on hold while the Biden administration's legal challenge makes its way through the federal courts. Many of the measure's critics worry that, if it takes effect, it will lead to rampant racial profiling by police. It all sounds very similar to a battle over a law that Arizona passed in 2010 which made it a crime to be undocumented in the state and required police to check the status of people they suspected. NPR's Adrian Florido has this look-back.

ADRIAN FLORIDO, BYLINE: When Arizona's SB1070 was passed in 2010, Reyna Montoya was a college student, undocumented, living with her parents. And the so-called show me your papers law had them in constant fear.

REYNA MONTOYA: My mom, for example, didn't allow me to go to the movie theaters with my friends, and she said that it was better to be cautious and to be safe than sorry.

FLORIDO: When she did go out, avoiding the police became vital.

MONTOYA: Whenever I would get to a stop sign, I started counting five Mississippis very slowly. So I just remember that my hands would start sweating, and I would be extra cautious to ensure that I wouldn't get in any type of encounter with law enforcement.

FLORIDO: Latinos and immigrants like Montoya knew that just the way they looked or spoke could give police a reason to suspect they were undocumented. The law even put Native Americans on alert, along with other U.S. citizens. Mario Carrillo, who's Mexican American, remembers that, when he took a road trip to Tucson from his home in Texas, he made sure to pack his U.S. passport.

MARIO CARRILLO: I can tell you for a fact that if SB1070 had not been put into law right around that time - that I would not have taken my passport. I wouldn't have felt the need to take it.

FLORIDO: As it turned out, he says that, once in Arizona, he was pulled over by a Border Patrol agent who asked if he was a U.S. citizen and who took his passport back to his patrol truck to verify it.

CARRILLO: I'm sure if I had been blond, blue-eyed, you know, I doubt that that same question would have come up.

FLORIDO: Just like the federal government is challenging Texas' law today, it also challenged Arizona's on the grounds that immigration enforcement was a federal responsibility. But a coalition of civil rights groups filed a separate lawsuit in Arizona on different legal grounds. Nicholas Espiritu is one of the attorneys who litigated that case. He's with the National Immigration Law Center. And he says the goal of the lawsuit was to show that SB1070 would have racist outcomes and that it was written with racist intent.

NICHOLAS ESPIRITU: We also wanted to highlight that the whole law was designed in part because of a desire to discriminate against Latinos, and we presented a large amount of evidence in the record to that effect.

FLORIDO: They found emails, writings and speeches in which the law's Republican authors talked about an invasion from Mexico and used other stereotypes to talk about Latinos. Ultimately, in 2012, the Supreme Court ruled, though only on the government's challenge.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

MELISSA BLOCK: To the Supreme Court now and a much-anticipated decision on Arizona's controversial immigration law.

FLORIDO: It struck down parts of the law that criminalized being in the state as an undocumented immigrant, but it upheld the section allowing police to investigate people's immigration status if they suspected they were in the country illegally. The civil rights groups spent several more years fighting that provision and eventually settled with the state's attorney general after he agreed to instruct police departments to essentially ignore that part of the law. While it remains on the books today, attorney Nicholas Espiritu says...

ESPIRITU: It can't be used as a mechanism to engage in racial profiling.

FLORIDO: Lisa Magana, a political scientist at Arizona State University, says one reason state officials threw in the towel was because of the immense public backlash. The state gained a reputation as racist. Artists and corporations boycotted.

LISA MAGANA: The state lost lots of money. The impact of boycotts and cancellations of conventions and concerts is what I think had the state rethink these types of laws.

FLORIDO: SB1070 also led many young Latinos and immigrants to activism. That wave of organizing helped turn Republican Arizona into the battleground state it is today. Reyna Montoya, who used to count to five at stop signs, founded a nonprofit called Aliento that helps young undocumented immigrants work through trauma stemming from their status. Many were children during the years of SB1070 and remember worrying their parents might not come home. She says the recent news about Texas' immigration law...

MONTOYA: This has been very triggering and opening up old wounds.

FLORIDO: And also opening up a deep worry, she says, that police could once again get a license to racially profile people who look like them.

Adrian Florido, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Adrian Florido
Adrian Florido is a national correspondent for NPR covering race and identity in America.