There's but one plausible explanation for the arrest of 24 Hispanic men by federal immigration agents outside a Fells Point convenience store in 2007 - racial profiling. A recently released videotape and government documents detailing the incident provide a vivid look at how easily law enforcement can run amok when officers are only interested in making their numbers look good.
The officers were agents of the U.S. Homeland Security Department's Immigration and Customs Enforcement division, and they were supposed to be looking for illegal immigrants who had been ordered to leave the country. Their bosses say they were just doing their job. But when their first sweep didn't produce enough arrests to satisfy their superiors in the agency's Baltimore office, they went to a local 7-Eleven where day laborers were known to gather and posed as employers. Hispanic men who approached were immediately arrested, while the agents ignored white and African-American customers. That's a sloppy way of doing the public's business.
The officers' conduct tracks the findings of a report last week by the Pew Hispanic Center showing that in 2007, immigration offenses represented nearly a quarter of all federal convictions - up from just 7 percent in 1991 - and that 80 percent of those sentenced were Hispanics.
A similar study by the Transactional Records Clearinghouse at Syracuse University found that immigration cases drove federal prosecutions to new highs in 2008, with a surge in prosecutions near the end of the year. Overall, the annual number of such prosecutions more than quadrupled during the eight years of the Bush administration.
A store videotape captured the Baltimore incident and an internal ICE report on it was obtained by CASA de Maryland, an immigrant advocacy group that is protesting what it calls racial profiling by the agency. The group points to the taped record as well as to statements by the agents as evidence officials knew they had no probable cause for the arrests and that the men were targeted solely because of their ethnicity.
ICE denies the charges. But that's not likely to satisfy the nation's Hispanic community, which has born the brunt of anti-immigrant prejudice. In October, another Pew Center study found that 9 percent of Hispanics reported having been stopped by authorities and asked about their immigration status, regardless of whether they were immigrants or native-born U.S. citizens.
Not surprisingly, fully half of those interviewed said the situation for Hispanics in this country has gotten worse over the last year.
America needs a sensible immigration policy to staunch the flow of illegal workers across its borders. But it can't do that by simply scooping up people on the basis of their race or ethnicity.
It's worrisome enough when police feel they have to issue a certain number of parking citations or speeding tickets to please the higher-ups, but when the numbers game leads to arresting people who have committed no crime solely on ethnic, racial or religious grounds, it's pernicious.