Missing: Alabama's Latinos, Obama Must Act!

News continues to flow about the impact of Alabama's anti-immigrant law and it's not looking good. Just when we thought the South was making amends for its horrid past, Alabama did an about-face. The Alabama legislature reached back into its historical bag of tricks of intolerance and racism and passed an immigration law that makes Arizona's law look almost tame. The new law passed in June, and recently a federal court refused to block most of what is the strictest immigration statute in the country. The results are taking a huge toll on immigrant families, communities and businesses.

After Republicans won a super majority in the Alabama legislature in 2010, they orchestrated a home-grown extremist attack on immigrants. Upping the ante on Arizona's draconian anti-immigrant law, the legislature passed a law that makes it a felony to enter into contracts with undocumented persons, permits police to ask immigration status (racial profiling), prohibits government transactions with undocumented immigrants and requires that schools check the citizenship status of all children (allegedly, for data collection purposes only). So, what's the practical effect? Undocumented immigrants cannot rent a home, or get water or electric service, or a job, or obtain any government service for that matter. Immigrants will be too scared to be helpful to the police. For the past several months, families have left the state because the law also required that when undocumented parents enroll their children in school (to obtain their constitutionally protected access to free, public education), they must reveal to the school that they are in the U.S. without legal status. This part of the provision was put on hold (but not yet struck down) by a federal court on October 14th. But news of this temporary block to the law is too late for many families and it doesn't correct the other wrongs in the law.

The impact has been devastating for families. Recent news reports document that Latino families are fleeing the state. Feeling unwelcome and scared, they are leaving in search of a place to call home, where they can go after the American Dream and get out of the shadows of society. Workers are quitting their jobs and packing up. Many families are withdrawing their children from school, and are being forced into a life on the run. Other families are preparing for the worst -- deportation -- and asking teachers and friends to serve as legal guardians of their U.S.-born children. Where is our humanity?

The proponents of the law claim they are merely protecting jobs for American citizens and reducing crime. What a farce! Businesses across the state are complaining that the laws are killing them. Their labor force is disappearing into the cover of night. The Alabama Farmers Federation, representing 40,000 farmers, is opposed to the new law because they need the labor. They claim to be losing 40-60 percent of their crops due to the loss of workers in the fields. According to the economic analysis of the Perryman Group, Alabama could lose almost 18,000 jobs and approximately $2.6 billion as a result of the cruel immigration law. The Institute on Tax and Economic Policy reported that undocumented immigrants in Alabama pay $25 million in income taxes, $5.8 million in property taxes, and $98 million in sales taxes, for a total contribution of more than $130 million. Even conservative-leaning organizations like the Competitive Enterprise Institute opposed Alabama's law because of the projected negative impact it will have on the economy.

Additionally, the crime argument doesn't pass the smell test. In the past 11 years, Alabama's violent crime rate has fallen by more than a third while its population of undocumented residents has risen from 5,000 to 120,000.

Despite the economic losses, Alabama will not be the last to propose a sweeping anti-immigrant law. We can expect such laws to keep rearing their ugly heads until President Obama steps up to push for immigration reform. I do not mean that he should continue what he is doing -- setting records in number of deportations after three years in office that surpass President George W. Bush's numbers during his eight years as president. (The Obama Administration boasts about the more than 1 million deportations.) No, I mean fixing our federal immigration law.

With more than 12 million undocumented immigrants in this country, President Obama's deportation strategy is not a winning strategy. We need a system that puts people on a road to citizenship. Many undocumented immigrants already pay taxes and work hard so it's time to move them out of the shadows and into first-class citizenship. We must create jobs with living wages for all so there is not a race-to-the-bottom pitting low-income citizens, especially people of color, against immigrants. Until the President steps up and fulfills his promise, Alabama and other states will have their say, passing repressive laws that intimidate and discriminate against immigrants.

Inclusion and opportunity are inherent values of any vibrant democracy. We were borne as a nation of immigrants and it is our diversity that forms the underlying strength of the American character. Alabama, Arizona and other state legislatures are engaging in a war of attrition. The casualties are immigrant families -- and the rest of us too. It is morally and fiscally expensive to us all. These laws are intended to make it uncomfortable and downright scary for immigrants to stay. They hope immigrants will live on the run and at some point disappear, i.e. "go back to where they came from." While we fight these battles one state at a time, the President must have the courage to serve as our General and move us into a period of healing and workable solutions that embrace our nation's values.

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