As a first-generation immigrant, I recognize the struggle that all immigrants face when integrating into American society. I was born in war-torn Laos and emigrated from a refugee camp in Thailand to the United States.
When we first arrived in this country, neither of my parents could speak, read, or write English. Growing up poor and Asian in the Fox River Valley in Wisconsin and in the immediate aftermath of the Vietnam War was tough. The city we lived in was so small that we were some of the first Asian faces to ever live in that community.
Living in a new country, surrounded by a new culture, and speaking a new language was tough, and the feeling that you don’t belong made it tougher.
Despite this, I embraced my new home, went to school, and even joined the Girl Scouts. However, I still didn’t understand why people treated me differently. Why my family would often get called “chink" or "gook,” and were often blessed with showers of spit or trash as we walked to school.
In the words of my mother, “No matter how American we become, we will never be able to change the shape of our eyes, the texture of our hair, and the color of our skin--someone, somewhere, will never like you because of the way you look.”
My mother’s words motivated me to study harder, propelling me through high school, college, and law school. I realized that although I may look different, in a country based on the rule of law, we were all equal and that our courts were the equalizers, which would give my community a voice.
But the Supreme Court’s ruling on Arizona’s S.B. 1070 made me think, “Was Mom right?” Did our highest court just hold that racial profiling based on appearance and speech was constitutional? Is blind justice only blind if you don’t look like me? Or as Toni Morrison writes, “In this country, American means white.”
Although the Court rightly struck down critical sections of S.B. 1070 on grounds that it is preempted by federal law—reemphasizing the long-standing principle that Congress has plenary power over immigration—its decision to leave in place the section relating to the damaging racial-profiling provision, which mandates state and local officers to verify the immigration status of those they reasonably believe is undocumented, undercuts our American values. Implementation of this provision will inevitably lead to racial profiling and discrimination of any person who looks or sounds foreign.
What does this mean for people who look like me? It means that Arizona law enforcement can inquire with anyone who they believe may have a questionable immigration status, even if they are in fact citizens or legal residents. People of color will need to carry “papers” on them at all times to avoid possible detention pending verification of their legal status.
The silver lining in the Supreme Court’s decision is that it does not mean the end of our fight for our civil rights. The decision left much room for the racial-profiling provision to be challenged and ultimately struck down by other preemption and constitutional challenges. And let’s not forget about Congress’s plenary power on immigration and its ability to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
Mee Moua is the president and executive director of the Asian American Justice Center, a member of the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice.