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Issue Date: August 2010 Issue


Headed for the Border?

Nope. My crime was walking while looking Hispanic.
Stuart Warner

I had just finished a long run, six or seven miles, on a summer Saturday morning in the late 1980s. The temperature was already approaching 90 degrees as I stopped to walk the final blocks back to my home off Akron's Highland Square. I was sweating like a field hand.

I took off my T-shirt. I started to wipe my face. And all of a sudden I thought I was in a bad cop movie. An Akron police cruiser hopped the curb on West Market Street and came to a screeching halt on the sidewalk, only a couple of feet from my bare legs. I was pinned between the driver's side of the car and a chain link fence.

A thick-chested cop with a blond flattop stepped out.

"We got a report that a Puerto Rican man robbed a store near here," he said to me. "You fit the description."

Right. Average height. Average weight. Dark hair. Beard. Wearing nothing but shorts, socks and running shoes. I smiled nervously. Then said something I probably shouldn't have.

"Where would I put whatever it is that I stole?"

He did not seem amused.

"Let's see some ID," he barked.

I had no pockets. No driver's license. I had a feeling I was about to go downtown. Or spread-eagle down on the sidewalk.

Then I glanced at the newspaper box on the street corner. And I smiled. I was a columnist for the Akron Beacon Journal. For some reason, Friday's edition was still in the box that morning. And there was a promotional photo for my column, about three inches high, at the top of the front page.

"Don't have any," I said. "But that's my picture — right there."

He looked at the newspaper box. He looked back at me. And back at the box. And back at me.

Finally, he smiled, too. He told dispatch he'd caught a columnist, not a criminal. Then he drove off, presumably to look for other men who looked like me.

Case closed.

I thought about that incident as I was listening to the debate over Arizona's new immigration law. My side is losing. Recent polls show as many as 60 percent of Americans and Ohioans approve of this license to profile. State Sen. Tim Grendell, a Republican from suburban Cleveland, is backing an initiative petition that would put a proposal similar to Arizona's on the Ohio ballot.

Essentially, the Arizona law turns over enforcement of federal immigration laws to state and local officers. All the officers need is "a reasonable suspicion" that someone is "unlawfully present in the United States." Then they have the right to ask you to prove you're an American citizen. Much like, from his car, the Akron policeman had "a reasonable suspicion" that I was a Puerto Rican.

But there's a flaw in my argument comparing that experience two decades ago to today's illegal-immigration issue. Pause just a moment, and see if you recognize it.

Richard Romero does. Romero, from Lorain, has served on Ohio's Commission on Hispanic/Latino Affairs for almost 20 years. He recently went to Columbus to argue against a bill much like Arizona's law in the Ohio Senate. Romero told a Republican senator that as a Puerto Rican, he feared such a law would lead to police asking him to prove his citizenship.

"You should have to provide your green card," the senator told him.

"I said, 'Senator, I'm Puerto Rican.' " Romero recounts. " 'Puerto Rico is part of the United States. We don't have to have green cards.' "

So I'm sure the officer that day in Akron never would have suspected that I was in this country illegally. But who's to say who looks legal? Some Hispanics are black. And some have blond hair and blue eyes.

Gus Shihab, one of Ohio's leading immigration attorneys, said he's frequently mistaken for Latino. "People ask me if I speak Spanish," he says. "I tell them, 'No, I'm of Arabic descent.' "

And my Kentucky-born mother once saw a picture of a suspected Palestinian terrorist in the paper and thought it was me.

Interestingly, Grendell would trust officers untrained in immigration identification to spot a potential alien invader. But he is opposed to the recent Ohio Supreme Court ruling that the same officers are qualified to determine if a driver is speeding without using radar.

Grendell didn't return calls to his office about this story. But previously, he was quoted as saying that a driver's license would be enough to prove citizenship under his immigration proposal.

Except there's no requirement that anyone have a driver's license unless you are driving a car. And four states allow illegal immigrants to obtain driver's licenses.

So if an officer stops a dark-haired driver named Esposito from California, how is he to determine if the suspect is a real American with a broken taillight or a border-hopping boogeyman here to do us harm?

That's the hard sell: Supporters say the law would rid the U.S. of Mexican drug dealers and other assorted criminals.

But would it really make us safer? Or just poorer?

Cleveland immigration attorney and author Richard Herman argues that Northeast Ohio needs immigrants to boost our economy, like they did in the early 20th century, when almost a third of Clevelanders were foreign-born. Now, only 5 percent are, he writes — well below the national average of 12 percent.

Arizona is already losing immigrants, legal as well as illegal, USA Today reported. And that's a state with good weather. Imagine trying to convince talented, productive legal immigrants to move to Cleveland in January after we've passed a law like Arizona's.

Shihab and Romero both acknowledge we need immigration reform. But both believe it's a federal responsibility. "Congress needs to say, 'These people are here. Let's do something about it,' " Shihab says.

"We should know who's in this country," Romero says. "But let's look for a solution that will work for everyone."

I agree, of course. However, I do understand some of the fears about letting people cross our borders willy-nilly.

I am mostly of hillbilly heritage. But the dark features that led to my mistaken ethnic identity that Saturday in Akron probably came from my great-great-grandfather, who was a chief of the Cherokee tribe in Kentucky.

His ancestors let all those white folks into this country without checking their papers.

And look how that turned out for the Native Americans.


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