Florida Governor Ron DeSantis and Texas Governor Greg Abbott are competing to push the most irrational and hateful anti-immigrant policies and political stunts. To the detriment of all Floridians and Texans, DeSantis and Abbott seem not to have learned anything from Donald Trump’s failed experiments in xenophobia or those of Arizona state officials in the late 2000s and early 2010s.
DeSantis is pushing sweeping anti-immigrant measures including a law making it a felony punishable by up to five years in prison to give an undocumented friend, parent, or community member a ride to the store, a place to stay, or a job. The cruel package of legislation would also treat certain out-of-state drivers’ licenses as invalid, repeal a Florida law that permits DACA recipients to become state-licensed attorneys, and force hospitals to ask about the immigration status of their patients.
Republican state lawmakers in Texas have proposed legislation that would deputize poorly trained citizens to terrorize immigrants as part of a “Border Protection Unit”—a next-level iteration of Governor Greg Abbott’s ongoing misuse of billions in state taxpayers’ money to target migrants for arrest and incarceration by Texas officials.
These policies are right out of a failed playbook from the late 2000s and early 2010s, when Arizona Governor Jan Brewer kicked off the decade by signing an extreme anti-immigrant bill into law. The “show me your papers” law sought to give every police officer in the state free rein to harass and target anyone “suspected” of being an unauthorized immigrant, and enacted state-level immigration crimes, resulting in racial profiling and intentionally creating a palpable climate of fear.
While the Arizona law initially inspired over a dozen states to introduce copycat legislation, most of the attempts were never signed into law, and those that were faced swift legal challenges and were significantly rolled back by the courts. In the long run, these bills backfired—they damaged industries, hurt small businesses, and took a toll on economies. Arizona saw a drop in sales tax revenue and a jump in the unemployment rate when SB 1070 first became law in 2010. A University of Alabama study found that Alabama’s economy may have suffered as much as $6.5 billion in damages as a result of its copycat law. Farmers saw their crops rot or planted less because the migrant workers they relied on for decades left for more welcoming states. These laws energized a new majority of Arizonans, led by Latinx people who suffered the worst of those policies, to mobilize, run for political office, and vote in historic numbers, changing the electoral map.
But in the years between the enactment of Arizona’s SB 1070, the 2016 election in which Arizonans voted Sheriff Joe Arpaio out of office, and the 2020 election in which they further rejected his politics and policies, untold harms were inflicted on immigrants, their families, and people of color, along with all Arizonans who saw their economy falter and their communities divided. The same harm will befall Florida and Texas if DeSantis and Abbott succeed today.
To be sure, the US immigration system needs an overhaul. The current situation at the border is at odds with the nation’s long history of welcoming immigrants and refugees—who are, after all, our future fellow citizens—and the federal laws that offer asylum to those who qualify, and allow them to begin contributing to their new communities. But DeSantis’s and Abbott’s proposals do nothing to make the system better. DeSantis’s plan would divide communities and force Americans into awful situations. Taxi, Lyft, and bus drivers would be forced to police their riders, including kids on their way to school. Emergency personnel would risk prison time for getting people to the hospital. Farmers would turn away workers in a time of extreme labor shortages. Families would have to interrogate their childcare or elder care workers about their immigration status and fire them if there’s any doubt, out of fear of penalties. The plan will also create extreme penalties for individuals and groups who provide essential services to people seeking asylum while they are getting on their feet in a new country.
The Texas proposals will allow Texas Border Protection Unit members to racially profile their neighbors and force people of color in the border region to endure even greater levels of surveillance and harassment.
The majority of Americans support fair immigration policies and do not want laws that lead their friends, neighbors, and community members to be targeted, harassed, and separated from their loved ones. Nor do they want to be forced to live in a surveillance state. Politicians who deal in fearmongering, rather than working on practical solutions, will pay the price, through legal challenges and, soon enough, the will of voters who believe in the American values of fairness, liberty, and opportunity.