Racial Profiling by Law Enforcement is Constant Threat
Key Finding: 47% of Respondents Know Someone Treated Unfairly by Police

Like African Americans during the height of Jim Crow, many Latinos in the South live in constant fear of being unfairly targeted by the police as they go about their daily lives.

Just the simple acts of driving to work or taking a child to a soccer match can result in intimidation or abuse — regardless of a Latino's immigration status. More than one person in the survey described the South as a "war zone" for immigrants, a place where harassment and routine inconvenience is a way of life and where life-altering consequences are always just one false step away.


This culture of fear is understandable given the many tales of police abuse and racial profiling recounted in extensive interviews for this report.

Forty-seven percent of the respondents in this survey said they knew someone who had been treated unfairly by police.

One of the major complaints is that Latinos are pulled over by police for the most minor of offenses — or no offense at all. Forty-seven percent of the respondents cited traffic stops as the most common form of "unjust treatment" by police. That figure climbs to 55 percent in Alabama and 60 percent in Georgia.

"Even if everything seems fine, I feel like I am being followed," one 37-year-old Mexican man living in Macon, Ga., told SPLC researchers. "If there is a cop behind you and you're doing everything right, you're still afraid."

Maria Eugenia, who came to Tennessee from Colombia, said her immigration papers are in order, but she is still afraid of being stopped by the police. "You never know when you will come across a racist police officer."

Police Checkpoints
Police checkpoints in predominately Latino areas are a common complaint, particularly in rural areas of north Alabama. Fifty-five percent of respondents in Alabama said there are police checkpoints where they live.

These checkpoints can be a lucrative source of revenue for local governments, because many areas in the South charge substantial fines for driving without a license. Fines can range from several hundred dollars to several thousand, and many states can impose jail sentences. Some local ordinances allow police to confiscate a driver's vehicle and charge the owner for the number of days it sits in the lot. A number of jurisdictions use minor traffic offenses to funnel immigrants into deportation proceedings as well.

Claudia, a Mexican living in northern Alabama, has seen firsthand how the actions of police have left the Latino community isolated and fearful. Countless police checkpoints have been set up in areas near trailer parks where many Latinos live. During a May 2008 interview for this report, Claudia said there were checkpoints every weekend near these trailer parks.

"People are afraid to leave their homes," she said. "They go to and from work and don't leave the house if they don't have to."

Similar stories were reported in other communities.

"Elena," a Mexican living in south Georgia, reported daylong police checkpoints at the only entrance to her predominately Latino neighborhood. Cars were impounded, fines were issued and some neighbors were even handcuffed. The message sent from the checkpoint was clear: Stay in your home.

In a recent study by the Pew Hispanic Center, nearly one in 10 Hispanic adults — 8 percent of native-born U.S. citizens and 10 percent of immigrants — reported that in the past year the police or other authorities had stopped them and asked about their immigration status.1

Savings Confiscated
In May 2008, Victor Marquez was traveling to his hometown in Querétaro, Mexico, when the truck in which he was riding was stopped by a police officer in Loxley, Ala., "for failure to maintain a marked lane."

Marquez planned to pay for a retirement home in Mexico and was carrying his legitimately earned wages and savings, along with that of a brother. Even though Marquez was not arrested or charged with any crime, the officer confiscated almost $20,000, claiming it was drug money.

"Samuel," a 25-year-old Guatemalan in New Orleans, was pulled over by police while riding his bicycle from soccer practice. The officer was looking for a woman's stolen bike. Even though the woman said she wasn't sure if Samuel's bike belonged to her, the officer took the bag containing Samuel's cleats from the handlebars, threw them to the ground and handed the bike to the woman.

Samuel was left on the street.

Hundreds of miles away in Tennessee, Miguel had his car towed away and impounded after a traffic stop by a police officer.

"I told [the officer] that the keys to my house, my paycheck and my tips from work were in the car," he said in an interview for this report. "He told me he didn't care."

The officer drove him out of town and left him there even though Miguel told the officer the traffic stop was within walking distance of home. Despite going through the legal system and paying a fine, he was never able to locate his car.

"Sometimes I feel terrorized because I am illegal," he said. "I only came here to work."

Racial Data on Profiling Scarce in the South
Those who study racial profiling have long advocated the retention of racial and ethnic data as an important practice to prevent racial profiling. In conducting research for this report, the SPLC found that most Southern states and localities do not require the collection of such data.

For this report, the SPLC requested data under state open records laws from several dozen localities where respondents reported profiling by the police. The vast majority of those localities refused to respond to our request and would not indicate what data, if any, they maintain.

TalkingOne locality — Huntsville, Ala. — provided records that reveal some of the difficulties in interpreting the available data. Huntsville maintained substantial racial data related to roadblocks. However, the information collected about ethnicity contained only four categories: white, black, Asian and Indian. There was no record showing whether individuals were Latino.

Data provided by the city of Albertville, Ala., showed that 73 percent of the vehicles seized and impounded as a result of roadblocks were taken from drivers with Latino surnames. Census data for the small city in north Alabama shows that Latinos make up only 16 percent of its population.2

Georgia currently has no state law prohibiting racial profiling and does not require the collection of data that would allow one to objectively determine whether it is occurring. None of the Georgia localities to whom the SPLC sent open records requests provided any data to show that they were keeping records of their traffic stops to ensure that racial profiling does not occur.

The SPLC also received numerous complaints of racial profiling by immigrants in Louisiana, a state that has passed an anti-profiling statute. The statute requires law enforcement to collect and report data but provides an exemption from this requirement for agencies that adopt a written policy against racial profiling. As a result, virtually all law enforcement agencies have adopted such policies, and none is required to keep track of racial and ethnic data related to traffic stops.

287(G) Agreements Lead to Serious Abuse
Adding to these concerns is the 287(g) program, which allows local or state police to enter into an agreement to enforce federal immigration law. Latino immigrants in locales with 287(g) programs expressed enormous fears that the most minor transgression might result in the destruction of families.

Though 287(g) programs have been operating since 2003, Immigration and Customs Enforcement documents show that more than half of the 67 active partnership agreements on record by November 2008 were signed in mid-2007 or later. This is about the same time immigration reform legislation failed in Congress. ICE data shows these agreements have been negotiated disproportionately in the South. More than half of these partnerships — 37 — are in the Southeast.

One commentator stated, "ICE's roster of 287(g) agreements reads like a map to hotspots in the immigration wars, places where activists say relations between immigrants and the larger community are particularly strained."3

Baltazar, a Latino immigrant living in Charlotte, described the changes that occurred when local law enforcement began enforcing immigration law.

"When the police started acting as immigration agents, immediately they started having roadblocks — roadblocks on the main streets," Baltazar said. "The police get carried away by the color of the skin without knowing whether you are a citizen or if you are an immigrant."

Many question whether the eagerness among law enforcement agencies to round up undocumented Latinos is based mainly on bigotry.

In Nashville, a city with a robust 287(g) program, such notions were reinforced in January 2009 when it came to light that Davidson County Sheriff Daron Hall had spoken to a meeting of the white nationalist Middle Tennessee Council of Conservative Citizens on Nov. 22, 2008.4 The Council of Conservative Citizens (CCC) is descended from the pro-segregation White Citizens' Councils of the civil rights era and is classified as a hate group by the SPLC.

When news of the appearance reached the local newspaper, Hall said he "had no idea" of the group's background and thought he was simply reaching out to a politically conservative group.5 Nonetheless, Hall's appearance before the group sent a message.

"It is open season on Hispanics in Nashville now," Nashville immigration lawyer Elliott Ozment told the SPLC. Ozment once served on a council formed to advise the sheriff on 287(g), but the sheriff removed him after Ozment said publicly that the council played no meaningful role.

Sheriff's statistics in Nashville revealed that approximately 80 percent of the 3,000 individuals deported in the first year of the program were arrested on misdemeanor offenses. It's estimated that 25 percent were arrested on charges of driving without a license, an offense that frequently snares undocumented immigrants who cannot obtain the legal documentation to lawfully drive.6

For Juana Villegas, an undocumented immigrant from Mexico, a traffic stop in Nashville for a minor offense led to an appalling series of events. Nine months pregnant, Villegas was arrested pursuant to the 287(g) agreement.

Six days later, Villegas was released from the county jail. She had already given birth to her son, going through labor as a sheriff's officer stood guard in her hospital room. Much of the time was spent with one of her feet cuffed to the bed. She also was barred from seeing or speaking with her husband.7

The ordeal didn't end after her discharge from the hospital. Separated from her infant for two days, Villegas was not allowed to have a breast pump in jail. Infection set up in her breasts and her baby developed jaundice. She has since filed a lawsuit in a case supported by the SPLC.

The Trade-Off
Although these stories show the devastating impact that overzealous law enforcement can have on the immigrant community, all residents are hurt when local agencies become preoccupied with enforcing immigration at the expense of other responsibilities. This was evident when a newspaper investigated the Maricopa County Sheriff's Office in Arizona — an agency that has gained national attention for its efforts to curb illegal immigration.

The investigation found that as Sheriff Joe Arpaio and his deputies arrested hundreds of undocumented immigrants, the department was failing to meet the response time set for life-threatening emergencies. It also found that "[r]ampant overtime spending" on immigration efforts pushed the office into "financial crisis" to the point of closing facilities across Maricopa County.8

Records examined by the newspaper also showed that efforts to fight illegal immigration by enforcing the state's human smuggling law pulled deputies from other parts of the department when it was already short-handed.

"A lot of this is the trade-off," Doris Meissner, a former commissioner of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, told the newspaper. "If the local police are doing federal law enforcement, other law enforcement responsibilities get a lower priority by default."

The economic downturn has exposed another trade-off that comes with the 287(g) program. When the sheriff's department in Wake County, N.C., was asked to trim its budget by 10 percent, the sheriff said he wanted to part with 287(g) — a program that costs the department almost $500,000 a year — only if the county's budget crisis reached worst-case levels. The program was placed on a list of cost-cutting measures, but the prospect of its elimination appeared unlikely in early February 2009.9

"With the economy as bad as it is, everything should be up on the table," Tony Asion, executive director of the North Carolina advocacy group El Pueblo, told a reporter. "We definitely need more police officers on the streets and not playing immigration officials at the jail." 10


1. Mark Hugo Lopez and Susan Minushkin. 2008 National Survey of Latinos: Hispanics See Their Situation in the U.S. Deteriorating; Oppose Key Immigration Enforcement Measures. Washington, DC: Pew Hispanic Center, September 2008, p. 9.

2. "Census 2000 Demographic Profile Highlights, Albertville, Alabama," U.S. Census Bureau.

3. Marcelo Ballvé, "Immigration Activists Battle Harsh Laws Across U.S.," New America Media, Dec. 22, 2008.

4. The SPLC's Hatewatch blog reported this on Jan. 29, 2009, based on an article in the Council of Conservative Citizens' Citizens Informer, October–December 2008.

5. Chris Echegaray, "Davidson County Sheriff Addresses White Supremacist Group," The (Nashville) Tennessean, The Tennessean, Jan 30, 2009.

6. Stephen Fotopulos, Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition, "Overly Broad Deportation Program Needs Common Sense Guidelines," The (Nashville) Tennessean, April 17, 2008.

7. Julia Preston, "Immigrant, Pregnant, Is Jailed Under Pact," The New York Times, July 20, 2008.

8. Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin, "MCSO Evolves into an Immigration Agency," East Valley Tribune, July 9, 2008.

9. Sarah Ovaska, "Wake Sheriff Wants to Keep Deportation Program," The (Raleigh, N.C.) News & Observer, Feb. 4, 2009.

10. Id.

Photo by Rex Ziak/Getty Images

Photo by Stacey Vaeth Gonzalez