A bill making its way through the Oklahoma Senate promises to bring the time-tested tactics of the war on drugs to the latest round of attacks on immigrants. Senate Bill 908, introduced by Senator Ralph Shortey (R-Oklahoma City), would authorize the forfeiture of vehicles, homes, and other property used to transport undocumented people. Part of the proceeds from the sale of seized items would go to the investigating law enforcement agency and prosecutor’s office.
S.B. 908 would also require police officers to verify the immigration status of anyone they stop or arrest and would allow officers to arrest without a warrant anyone believed to be removable for having committed a crime.
The effect of a forfeiture provision is quite simple: to create a financial incentive for police departments and prosecutors to prioritize immigration policing. This, in fact, appears to be Shortey’s goal. According to an Associated Press article, Shortey said, “If you give (law enforcement) a fiscal reason why they should do it, then they're going to enforce these laws.”
Shortey wants to dangle the carrot of free money in front of cash-strapped police departments on the belief that resisting this incentive would prove daunting. Unfortunately, there is plenty of reason to believe he is probably right.
We have seen this tactic before. As Michelle Alexander brilliantly chronicles in her 2010 book The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, President Ronald Reagan’s campaign against drugs did not gain much traction until police became financially invested. First they received free military weaponry, training, and grants. It was not until Congress allowed local law enforcement agencies to keep part of the proceeds of their drug investigations, however, that the war on drugs became a central feature of criminal policing. “Law enforcement gained a pecuniary interest not only in the forfeited property,” Alexander explains, “but in the profitability of the drug market itself.”
The war on drugs, of course, is better described as a war on people of color—and most aptly, a war on black men. Though brown faces and poor white people have been caught up in this vortex to varying degrees, it is at bottom a decades-long project of repainting the black male body as savage. Sadly, it has been all too successful.
Shortey and the Oklahoma Republicans who have given life to his proposal by sending it from the Judiciary Subcommittee to the full Appropriations Committee threaten to expand this strategy against today’s scapegoats—the immigrants whose Latina/o, Arab, and Muslim (this being the state that recently banned its courts from using Sharia law) images lay just below the surface of anti-immigrant rhetoric.
The lesson to be learned from the adoption of war on drug tactics to, in words Kevin Johnson used in his recent Chapman Law Review article “It’s the Economy, Stupid: The Hijacking of the Debate Over Immigration Reform by Monsters, Ghosts, and Goblins (or the War on Drugs, War on Terror, Narcoterrorists, Etc.),” the “war on immigrants” is, of course, that it is imperative to see these campaigns as related parts of a campaign against racialized outsiders—people whose very humanity is devalued in the name of law and order.
by César Cuauhtémoc García Hernández
Assistant Professor of Law
Capital University Law School