One of the pitfalls of an Arizona-style immigration law was demonstrated at a recent Oldsmar City Council meeting where personal prejudice and faulty assumptions about immigrants were on public display.
Oldsmar City Council member Janice Miller is being castigated by some and applauded by others for remarks she made at the end of the July 6 council meeting.
Miller, a veteran council member in the North Pinellas city of about 14,000, said she wanted to get something off her chest. She said the city should contract only with companies that do not hire illegal immigrants. She praised Arizona for its new immigration law and noted that some U.S. cities are considering their own rules to discourage illegal immigration.
Then she mentioned that contractors who replaced the roof of Oldsmar City Hall a few years ago littered the grounds with their lunch trash.
Miller, who sometimes has trouble expressing herself, was prompted by her council seatmate, Jerry Beverland, to make her point more clearly.
"You need to tell who threw the lunch bags down there," he said, clearly knowing where Miller was headed.
"The workers who were illegals," Miller responded.
Miller couldn't know whether the roofers were illegal, as she had not investigated their immigration status. She made an assumption apparently based on the way the workers looked. That is racial profiling of the sort that worries critics of Arizona's law, which requires police to verify the immigration status of anyone they stop if they believe that person might be an illegal resident.
Miller dug the hole even deeper. She went on to say that on her daily walks she had passed a crew doing preliminary work for the city's new reverse-osmosis water plant.
"They're all American and I was so pleased to see that," she said.
Miller couldn't be sure the workers were Americans unless she personally checked their status. She made an assumption apparently based on her observation of their skin color and appearance — and her own biases.
Similarly inappropriate conclusions have surfaced repeatedly during the spirited debate about the Arizona immigration law, which some would like to see in Florida. It is clear that many Americans mistakenly believe that if a person has dark skin or speaks a language other than English, that person is an illegal immigrant. And some, like Miller, may think that if people are white and speak English, they must be "legal Americans."
Miller's original point — that the city shouldn't do business with companies that employ illegal immigrants — was not out of bounds. Employing undocumented workers is illegal in the United States, and the federal government's failure to enforce that law, along with companies' willingness to hire undocumented workers because they will work cheaply, has contributed to the anger that now surrounds the issues of immigration reform and border security.
But Miller made two big mistakes, which have led some to suggest she resign. She revealed an uninformed and discriminatory attitude about immigrants. And when her remarks sparked controversy, she first issued a fumbled apology, then lashed out, accusing the media of twisting her words and calling herself the victim of a witch hunt. Miller's original comments can be viewed on a computer. Go to ci.oldsmar.fl.us/videos.htm and click on Part 7 of the July 6 meeting.
Had Miller been capable of objectively examining her own biases, she might have been able to offer a sincere apology and use the episode to educate others. Instead, she has raised doubts about whether she is open-minded enough to do her duty to provide fair and equal representation to all Oldsmar residents.
Diane Steinle is editor of editorials for the North Pinellas editions of the Times.