Alabama's HB 56 Immigration Law Shows Disturbing Upward Trend in Anti-Immigrant Policies

Alabama’s new legislative session beginning this week is making headlines as legislators prepare to review HB 56, an immigration bill passed in June 2011 that is widely regarded as the toughest immigration act yet, surpassing even Arizona's controversial “Papers Please” SB 1070 law. Though Alabama’s is by far the most sweeping law currently on the books, it is part of a larger trend of draconian immigration legislation in this country that is creating more of an immigration problem than it is solving.

The law is based around a strategy known as “self deportation,” the goal of which is to make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they will choose to leave and return to their country of citizenship. HB 56 transforms every interaction that Alabama residents have with any government official – including DMV officers and mobile home licensing employees, not just law enforcement officials, as in Arizona’s SB 1070 – into a checkpoint where they must prove their citizenship before conducting any kind of business. This and similar legislation violate civil liberties and in effect mandate racial profiling at all levels of government. It makes immigration the first priority of Alabama police forces, when it previously barely registered on their radar. According to the bill’s main author, Senator Scott Beason, the main motivation the legislation was creating job vacancies for the benefit of unemployed American citizens (keep in mind here that Alabama’s immigrant population represents less about 3% of the state population). Certain provisions of the bill were put on hold by courts after it was passed last summer, but most key provisions remain, and with disturbing consequences.

Thousands of parents have pulled their children out of school, families stay home from work for fear of driving on the roads, and farmers reported losing food crops because workers have fled to other states. Businesses have suffered. Most importantly, families and friends have been separated. Latino residents profiled on a recent episode of This American Life (most of whom, of course, are not illegal immigrants) have said that thanks to this law non-white immigrants, legal and otherwise, are indeed unwelcome now, and see a change in daily interactions with their neighbors when they had previously felt welcome in the community, again creating problems where none previously existed.

Despite all this, the bill is unlikely to be overturned. Rather, legislators this session are simply aiming to reconsider certain aspects of the law that have had farther reaching impacts than anticipated, such as provisions that have inconvenienced law enforcement or impacted business in the state. It's not surprising why: the bill has proved very politically beneficial for its Republicans supporters, and popular support exists for the idea behind it; 42% of Alabama’s population said they support the basic tenets of the law (though they think it goes too far).

Alabama is not alone. Several other state legislatures, including South Carolina, have proposed bills in recent sessions that are similarly far-reaching and aim to create a climate that would lead to self deportation. Six other states have provisions on the table akin to Arizona’s SB 1070. The idea is gaining traction in national debate as well; likely Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney has already talked on the campaign trail about self deportation as the “third way” to reform immigration.

A large part of the problem here is the lack of a coherent national strategy to address illegal immigration, which has opened the door to unified conservative state legislators banding together to pass far-reaching anti-immigrant legislation. Although President Barack Obama mentioned comprehensive immigration reform in his State of the Union this January, he padded his stance with a hard-line commitment to border security. Regardless, immigration will not be at the forefront of the Administration’s agenda during this election year. With unemployment rates still high and the recession lingering, illegal immigration offers an easy scapegoat. However, these laws simply create a distraction from the real causes of the recession and unemployment and the solutions that we need to be focusing on – financial reform, consumer protection, job creation.

Hopefully, “Comprehensive Immigration Reform” will turn into a unified progressive strategy to meet the conservative backlash before any more states see schools empty, workers confined to their homes, and farmland lay fallow.

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