Within Reason: Officers Checking Status

By Jessica M. Vaughan on April 22, 2010

This week the Arizona state legislature passed a bill that, among other things, says that if local law enforcement officers encounter someone they suspect is an illegal alien, they should take "reasonable" steps to try to determine the alien's immigration status. A new web program sheds light on issues such as these.

Opponents of the Arizona measure are busy organizing prayer vigils asking the governor to veto the bill and, if that fails, lawsuits to prevent it from going into effect, saying it would institutionalize racial profiling. However, the bill specifically states that officers may not rely solely on "race, color or national origin" in developing reasonable suspicion that someone is an illegal alien, and they may question aliens about their status only in the context of a legitimate law enforcement encounter (usually meaning the alien has broken another law) – they may not randomly target people for questioning.

So what is "reasonable suspicion" that someone is an illegal alien, and what "reasonable" steps can local officers take to determine status? A federal appeals court recently addressed these questions when it considered the actions of a Rhode Island state trooper who questioned illegal aliens about their status during a traffic stop. The case, known as Estrada v. Rhode Island, is the subject of a new web program produced by the Center for Immigration Studies and LEAPS.TV, now available here. (All the CIS/LEAPS.TV web programs are available here.) Further details on the case and its importance are discussed in my previous blog.