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Discretionary Profiling as a Systemic Problem

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            In her article “Racial Profiling and Immigration Law Enforcement: Rounding Up of Usual Suspects in the Latino Community,” Mary Romero uses a critical race theory lens to analyze the “personal and community cost” that Mexican Americans must pay as a result of racial profiling by immigration authorities (448). These costs include micro- (personal level) and macro- (group level) aggressions such as “immigration stops and searches” (450), the “exclusionary use of urban spaces” (453), as well as “hate crimes or the decrease of government funding and services to their communities” (450).

More importantly, however, Romero argues that by subjecting Mexican Americans and other rationalized Latinos to the constant fear of harassment and possible legal consequences (including deportation), “immigration raids function as a policing practice to maintain and reinforce subordinated status among working-class US citizens and legal residents of Mexican ancestry” (450-51). Moreover, because they are enforced not on the basis of “systematic or random checking of identification,” but rather based on the presence of darker-skinned individuals in “ethnic cultural spaces marked by Mexican-owned businesses, agencies offering bilingual services, and neighborhoods with the highest concentration of poor and working-class Latinos,” the enforcement of American immigration laws results in the embodiment of a “figurative border” within the skin of Mexican Americans and Latinos, the creation of a “petit apartheid,” and the reification of a Spanish-speaking “landscape of suspicion” (453).

            Romero’s position on discretionary racial profiling is highly convincing. The negative effects—both in terms of macro- and micro-aggressions—that discretionary profiling by immigration officials can have on darker-skinned populations constitute major civil-rights and human-rights violations and her implicit call to action against them is very compelling. Additionally, her demonstration that historically immigration laws have been selectively enforced in response to the changing economic needs of American businesspeople (449-50) demonstrates that immigration laws have functioned primarily not to enforce law and order, but rather to keep lighter-skinned Americans wealthy and Mexican Americans and other Latinos subdued and afraid to venture into public spaces.

Her account, however, seems to imply too much agency on the part of immigration officials. While the actions of many agents of the Immigration and Naturalization Services (now the Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) ) are certainly far from blameless, it seems unlikely that, as Romero puts it, “the INS is in the position of having to negotiate an adequate flow of undocumented labor to meet urban capitalist needs while maintaining the appearance of controlling immigration” (453). Rather, it seems more plausible that the law has been constructed in such a way as to benefit those who created it—primarily wealthy white males—to the disadvantage of those who did not. The privileging of “whitened” (453) white citizens and their economic wellbeing can thus be seen as a product of the functioning of certain biased laws, rather than as the product of biased actions by a certain group of government officials (the INS/ICE).

It is the law itself, in combination with the functioning of our capitalist economic system, not the individual ICE agents, which perpetuate the racialized targeting of Mexican American and Latino immigrants. The law orders that only persons who have been documented by ICE may enter the United States, and sets an arbitrary limit on the number of non-citizens that will be documented each year. However, many business in the United States face insufficient supplies of labor, particularly low-cost labor. It is in the interest of these businesses to hire the lowest-cost labor possible, which frequently comes in the form of undocumented immigrants who cannot rely on guarantees such as minimum wage laws. The fact that these immigrants have found work encourages more people to follow after them.

The immigration quotas are insufficient to meet the needs of the American economy. It is not in the interest of businesspeople to comply with the laws in the United States, and not in the interest of governors (who are supported by these businesses) to act against them. Meanwhile, despite the fact that the real ‘cause’ of these waves of undocumented immigration are the economic draws (businesses) in the United States, the burden of punishment is shifted to those who cross the border (undocumented persons). The Agents at the INS/ICE are expected to enforce these unfair laws against the undocumented themselves, and not against the businesses at which they work (462). As long as there remains a compelling economic incentive for people to come to the United States in violation of our immigration laws, as long as the countries ‘legal’ and ‘economic’ laws are in conflict, this pattern will continue.

Moreover, the racialization of this divide is helpful to the system of economic exploitation. Where racist attitudes exist among the dominant group, especially in a situation where, as here, the subordinated group is unable to act through legal channels without fear of sanction, there are few left who seek to change the rules on their behalf. It makes it ‘okay’ to treat undocumented immigrants this way because they are ‘lawbreakers’ or otherwise ‘bad people.’ Moreover, because the law separates ‘legal’ from ‘illegal’ persons of Mexican ancestry, it creates a class of legally-sanctioned superiors that can exercise its rights and also be “whitened” by the enforcement of laws against the undocumented. This racist sentiment is both created through and perpetuated by the enforcement of the immigration laws.

Situating the primary responsibility for this unfortunate situation on the agents themselves seems overly simplistic. It is rather the functioning of a system that was built and functions to maintain the economic privilege of the white land-owning lawmakers themselves.


Romano, M. (2006). “Racial Profiling and Immigration Law Enforcement: Rounding Up of Usual Suspects in the Latino Community.” Critical Sociology, 32, 447-473.

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