Arizona's Immigration Law Is Popular. Is Racial Profiling?

A CBS/New York Times poll finds that Arizona's new immigration law is, in fact, popular among the broader public: 51 percent say the law is "about right." From an April 28-May 2 survey (full results here) of 1,079 respondents, one of 76 questions asked:

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One might be tempted to surmise that the following question signals that Americans are okay with racial profiling, in the context of Arizona's law:

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So respondents believe Arizona's law will result in officers detaining people of a certain race (e.g. Hispanics) more frequently as a result of the bill. And most respondents like the new law. Ergo, they're okay with officers disproportionately stopping Hispanics, as one of the law's consequences.

Sounds a lot like racial profiling.

But's Brendan Nyhan warns that such a reading is misguided. The question isn't whether more Hispanics will get stopped; rather, it's whether the law will lead officers to detain people solely based on their ethnic backgrounds--to use race as a determining factor in deciding whom to stop--the definition of racial profiling.

The Arizona law initially prohibited officers from such intentional profiling.

The first version of the law, which Gov. Jan Brewer signed on April 23, provided in multiple instances that "a law enforcement official or agency of this state or a county, city, town or other political subdivision of this state may not solely consider race, color or national origin in implementing the requirements of this subsection except to the extent permitted by the United States or Arizona Constitution."

The word "solely" was stricken from the law in an updated, follow-on version Brewer signed April 30. Now, officers are prohibited from considering race, period, when enforcing the new law, except as permitted by the U.S. and AZ Constitutions.

Critics of the law, needless to say, think racial profiling is exactly what will happen--but also that Hispanics will be stopped erroneously, regardless if their race is the motivating factor. Officers probably won't be stopping a lot of white people, since all illegal Mexican immigrants are, by definition, Mexican--meaning most of them will be Hispanic--thus almost all of the erroneous stops, the collateral damage of enforcing Arizona's new law, will be inflicted upon the Hispanic population.

Nyhan is right that the NYTimes/CBS question doesn't address intent. It doesn't show that poll respondents are okay with officers using race to determine whom to stop.

And given that a vast majority of illegal immigrants are, in fact, Hispanic, perfect enforcement of this law--with no one getting stopped erroneously--would mean that, yes, Hispanics would be detained disproportionately to other ethnic groups.

Whether the poll's respondents thought about it that way, or whether they're just okay with some collateral police detainment of Hispanics as this law gets enforced, I suppose is up for debate.