With the “occupations” sweeping the country, the failure of the jobs bill and an alleged assassination plot against the Saudi Ambassador, the shocking news out of Alabama in the last few weeks garnered little notice. So if you missed it, Alabama began implementation of a draconian immigration law (HB56), codifying a new era of fear and racism in our country. HB56 turns Alabama into a police state reminiscent of the old Soviet Union, making it a crime to appear in public without your papers in order. It requires proof of citizenship in routine transactions. Schools need to see papers for children and their parents before fulfilling their core duty of educating children. In moves worthy of a dystopian late-night B-movie, law enforcement is now required to stop anyone who “appears” illegal.
One hyper-real image making its way around the Internet shows a sign posted on the door of a utility office demanding a driver’s license to pay your bill. Failure to show proof of citizenship, the sign warned, could result in termination of water services to your home. Punishment will now be meted out not only to people without papers, but also to those who employ, house or assist them in any way. A lawsuit to stop HB56 filed on behalf of Episcopalian, Methodist and Roman Catholic churches notes that “Alabama’s Anti-Immigration Law will make it a crime to follow God’s command to be Good Samaritans.”
On October 14, a circuit court of appeals blocked two sections of the law regarding schools and random checks of citizenship, but left the rest intact. Despite this late reprieve, damage has already been done. Through official reports, whispered stories and calls to a hastily set up support hotline, the human damage is starting to come into sharp focus. Two thousand children didn’t show up for school the day after the law went into effect—worried parents kept them home, fearing arrest or separation. A man told the hotline his full-term pregnant wife was too terrified to go to the hospital to give birth. He said they would stay at home and hope for the best. Yard sales are a common sight, with locals picking through belongings of former neighbors trying to sell what they can before fleeing the state. Many won’t even leave their homes for groceries, and church workers are on overtime delivering as much sustenance as possible. Undocumented parents with children who are citizens face heartbreaking choices—a teenager giving up a hard-won college scholarship to remain with her family; a newly engaged couple choosing between being torn apart or living a life in hiding.
The architects of this mandate claim that if we drive undocumented workers away, there will be more jobs for American citizens. Years of evidence and early reports from Alabama tell a different story. Famers are already reporting a crisis in their workforce that will hobble harvests and drive food prices higher. One farmer reported that he had only eleven citizens apply for the picking jobs after his crew left, only one stayed to take the job after learning what was entailed—and that man quit after one day. Alabama farmer Chad Smith told Forbes, “The tomatoes are rotting in the vine, and there is very little we can do.” “We will be lucky to be in business next year,” he added.
The theory goes that if American citizens won’t subject themselves to the same backbreaking conditions for the same meager pay that immigrants are forced to live with, employers will have to raise wages and pass along the cost to consumers. But with poverty in the state over 17 percent, the disposable income required to absorb these costs just doesn’t exist right now. And with studies showing nearly one-third of Alabama households already not getting enough to eat, letting crops rot in the fields is downright immoral.
The economic impact doesn’t end with the crops; it affects everyone in the state. As Randy Christian, chief deputy in Birmingham’s Jefferson County, points out, his county is already trying to avoid filing the largest municipal bankruptcy in US history; enforcing this law will cost police money they do not have: “I am more concerned on where we will put the ones we detain. We have a jail built for 900 inmates that is already overcrowded and averaging 1,200 inmates a day. It’s another unfunded mandate to a county struggling to keep its head above water.”
So, if the economic calculation is so off, how did we get to this moment when a counterproductive proposal, rooted in racism, becomes the law of at least part of our land? Support for comprehensive federal immigration reform has been steady for almost a decade. In the latest Pew survey, nearly 76 percent of Democrats and 63 percent of independents supported a pathway to legal status for undocumented immigrants—as did more than 44 percent of Republicans.
Yet, from the Comprehensive Immigration Act of 2006 to the failure of the DREAM Act in 2010, we’ve been completely unable to advance reasonable and humane solutions at the federal level, no matter who is in the White House. The “why” is a messy mix of racism, elite obstructionism and politicians guilty of playing on xenophobia to win races and power. But when a population is denied a rational solution to an identified problem, the ground becomes fertile for extreme measures to take root.
For those—and there are many—who say “Well, that’s just Alabama,” I would point your attention to Arizona, Georgia and other states that have already taken steps in the same direction. History is full of irrefutable evidence that when the economy gets bad, scapegoats are targeted, and the worst instincts of humanity reveal themselves. Alabama has asked its citizens to cross invisible boundaries of humanity—waging political battles on the backs of school children, cutting access to the most basic human needs, like water. The faces fleetingly captured in the media in Alabama before disappearing into the shadows are victims of a political system that encourages grandstanding over proble- solving. This dark response to our country’s need for genuine economic reform stands in stark contrast to the hope so many are experiencing from the thousands of occupiers standing together in parks all over this country demanding change. Fake fixes come in all shapes and sizes, from diverting the conversation from jobs to a debt ceiling, to pointing the long finger of blame at those with the least power in our society. Alabama’s latest experiment shows us that we can’t reclaim our economy by surrendering our humanity.