Move over, Arizona – Alabama now holds the dubious honor of having the toughest immigration law on the books in the United States today.
Alabama isn’t the only state passing legislation similar to Arizona’s notorious Senate Bill 1070. Georgia, Indiana and Utah have all passed similar laws, but none of their laws stand up to the intensity of the Alabama law. The legislation mirrors Arizona’s SB 1070 in that it allows law enforcement officials to request documents proving legal residence based on “reasonable suspicion” that an individual is illegal. In Alabama, however, you need documents for just about everything beyond that as well. Attending school, renting an apartment, carrying out a “business transaction”, having public utilities hooked up, working in any capacity, even simply walking around – not having documents on your person, even as a legal resident or U.S. citizen, can result in trouble.
Laws such as these are ostensibly created to keep taxpayer-funded services in the hands of legal residents, and to increase enforcement of immigration laws that bar undocumented immigrants from working in the United States. However, their ramifications are much more far-reaching than that, both for states’ economies and for the Latino population.
Alabaman farmers are already concerned about the law’s impact on farms. This is a justifiable concern considering that Georgia’s crackdown on illegal labor resulted in a projected $391 million loss due to farm labor shortages, shortages that farmers attribute to the increase in fear among foreign laborers based on the new immigration law. Alabama’s sheriffs, according to The New York Times, are also concerned about the costs counties will incur when enforcing the law. Again, this is a concern that has come up before, and the National Council of La Raza states in a 2011 brief that questions of cost factored into many states’ decision to not pursue similar immigration legislation.
Clearly, some states with strict immigration law did not think through the economic impacts of this legislation.
The real tragedy here, however, is how the vague wording of these laws contributes to the criminalization of race. The U.S. population increasingly conflates undocumented immigration with the Latino identity, and laws such as these promote that conflation. Being Latino becomes a reason that law enforcement officials and public servants can grill an individual about their legal status and their documentation and deny them certain rights. This doesn’t just affect undocumented immigrants, as intended – it also affects U.S. citizens and legal residents.
Equating suspicion of illegality with race or color and empowering people to jump from that suspicion to action is dangerous. Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu, writing for The Huffington Post about Arizona’s legislation in April 2010, said “Abominations such as apartheid do not start with an entire population suddenly becoming inhumane. They start here. They start with generalizing unwanted characteristics across an entire segment of a population.”
By allowing these laws to be passed despite their vague wording, voters have put their fear before another group’s rights. Many in the United States have already recognized that. These bills and laws have been challenged by the ACLU, religious organizations, community organizations, business associations, labor unions and individuals. The United States itself has challenged multiple states’ strict immigration laws based on their unconstitutionality and their preemption of existing federal law. How much stronger of a signal do we need before we conclude that these laws were a poor decision, regardless of where one might stand on the immigration issue?
Rather than succumb to the fear-mongering rhetoric about the “Latino invasion” or the supposed criminal inclination of undocumented immigrants, voters on both sides of the immigration debate need to be careful before supporting the passage of extremely strict immigration legislation.