For San Diego Latinos who aren’t citizens of this country, racial profiling by the police is a lurking menace in everyday life.

fix san diego opinionIt’s a risk that threatens to pull folks from their homes and families at the drop of a hat.

At any time, they could find themselves yanked back to a country many haven’t visited since infancy.

It happens like this:

A woman is driving her child to school one morning. She is pulled over for an expired tag. The officer has her car towed because the woman doesn’t have a driver’s license. Because of her appearance and limited English, an agent with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement is called in to “translate.” The ICE agent arrests her for being in the U.S. without proper documents and deports her to Mexico. A relative comes to care for her U.S.-born child.

A juvenile probationer lives with his foreign-born parents. A probation officer arrives to do a home visit. Based on the family’s appearance, the officer decides to call in an ICE agent, who arrives to question not just the parents, but any other relatives who live there. All are deported, leaving the young probationer at home alone.

We Stand Up For You. Will You Stand Up For Us?

READ MORE: What It Means When Police Ask: ‘Are You on Probation?’

A child disappears and police launch a search. They broadcast a description of the van they suspect carried the child away. A Latino — a legal resident — thinks he saw it. But he doesn’t come forward because his wife and children are all undocumented. The missing child is later found murdered.

As an attorney, I often see police reports that say a suspect was of “Hispanic appearance.” What is that exactly?

Hispanics appear in all shades of brown — darker from the Caribbean, Veracruz and South America, lighter from the many German, Irish, French and Italian immigrants who arrived in Latin America and passed on blonde hair and blue or green eyes.

A recent survey commissioned by San Diego Magazine and KPBS asked “How do you think the average San Diegan would describe the average Hispanic?” The answers included “illegal,” “burden on society,” “lazy,” and “drunk.” Too often, the attitudes and beliefs that these words convey shape the thinking of officers who engage in racial profiling.

Lack of understanding and fear are what drive these officers to default toward profiling. The police departments throughout our county need to do a better job training their officers, and need to root out those few who give the many a bad rap.

READ MORE: San Diego Has Fallen Behind on Combating Police Racial Profiling

It can’t stop there, though. Department higher-ups need to make it safe for the officers who have so far refused to cross the “thin blue line” to report misconduct. The bystanders see fellow officers engaging in racial profiling but say nothing, or worse, lie about what they saw.

These officers, both the offenders and the observers, betray their oaths and the trust placed in them by the public — including the very people so coldly profiled.

Victor Manuel Torres is an attorney and board member of the San Diego La Raza Lawyers Association. Torres’ commentary has been lightly edited for style and clarity. See anything in there we should fact check? Tell us what to check out here.

    This article relates to: Fix San Diego, Immigration, Opinion, Police, Racial Profiling

    Written by Catherine Green

    Catherine Green is deputy editor at Voice of San Diego. She handles daily operations while helping to plan new long-term projects. You can contact her directly at or 619.550.5668. Follow her on Twitter: @c_s_green.

    shawn fox
    shawn fox subscriber

    I'm having a hard time understanding what the police did that was wrong.  If a car has expired tags, then you will get pulled over regardless of your skin color or english speaking ability.  On top of that the person barely speaks english, and doesn't have a driver's license.  Hmmm.  Could that person be an undocumented immigrant?  That is simply common sense, not racial profiling.  The KPBS poll appears to be totally meaningless.  They asked a bunch of people what they think every other San Diego thinks about Latinos. Are they all mind readers?  

    Mark Giffin
    Mark Giffin subscribermember

    And just what is the police policy concerning illegal immigrants and how they are handled?

    Mr. Torres seems to suggest  the policy is geared towards getting ICE involved as a mater of policy in every instance.

    Is that indeed the policy based on fear and lack of understanding?

    In San Diego?......Please!

    Mr. Torres presentation of the survey done by KPBS  implies the negatives are predominant in the views of San Diegans or the perceptions of those views by Latinos.

    Neither is true. In both groups the positive attributes stand out.

    michael-leonard subscriber

    While I agree with the article and all the comments, I wish to point out that the term "racial profiling is incorrect. It should be "ethnic profiling."

    Please do not continue to use the emotional trigger-word, the "race card", indiscriminately. Just as using the word "holocaust" when it isn't appropriate diminishes the meaning, so it is also true in these cases of ethnic profiling.

    Thank you.

    LawyerforJustice subscriber

    As a very white-skinned person of Hispanic origin -- the kind with blue eyes and blonde hair -- I appreciate Mr. Torres pointing to the absurdity of racially profiling the average 'Hispanic-looking' person.

    I hope this article helps our entire community advance its dialogue on these critical issues of social justice.  I am asked -- to a frighteningly frequent extent -- why I am so passionate about issues relating to "racial justice" -- particularly to the criminal justice issues affecting members of our community who do not look like me.  As though we are only expected to advance causes of justice for people who look like us....

    Mr. Torres' article highlights the need for the entire community to acknowledge the prevalence of intentional and unintentional discrimination and resolve to evolve, by any means necessary.

    I'm proud to be your fellow foot soldier, Mr. Torres.

    alicia lo
    alicia lo subscriber

    Racial profiling is a plague on us and a very complicated issue. With fear of crime rising, stereotypes are easy answers and get in the way of reasonable discourse. The author raises some good points even though he is a lawyer. 

    jleien subscriber

    Very pointed op-ed and unfortunately true.  Law enforcement won't bat an eye when it comes to towing a car driven by someone with brown skin and all the while allowing murderers like John Gardner to drive on his merry way despite having no valid driver's license and an open container of alcohol inside his vehicle.

    If law enforcement would only concentrate on keeping the peace rather than destroying people's lives and ripping apart families, our community would be much safer.

    Andrew Nietor
    Andrew Nietor subscriber

    The problems of racial profiling in the Latino community are particularly problematic, with many (hopefully unintended) consequences, as Victor Torres points out.  Do we want a crime victim to be afraid of the police and allow a threat to the community to grow, or a battered woman to fear reporting her abuse for fear of being detained herself, or a witness to a crime to remain silent because of the risk of interacting with law enforcement?  As the article's author correctly points out, this is an issue that goes beyond one of fairness to the target (although that should be enough to stop the practice).  It ultimately thwarts the goals of law enforcement and makes our community LESS safe.