Nativist Laws Wreak Havoc Across Nation

In the absence of national action on immigration reform, states and local communities have attempted to fill the gap, passing and defending ill-advised laws that seek to preempt federal power over immigration.
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In the last decade, high levels of non-white immigration have sparked a backlash against the changing racial makeup of the United States. Hate crimes against Latinos, who make up the bulk of the immigrants, have spiked. The number of racist hate groups has expanded by more than half. Frustration with what is seen as federal inaction has fueled the growth of vigilante-type groups patrolling the border and the proliferation of anti-immigrant ordinances and state laws.

Today, the Southern Poverty Law Center released a report -- "When Mr. Kobach Comes to Town: Nativist Laws & the Communities They Damage" -- that assesses the impact of these laws, which began with a 2006 proposal aimed at punishing undocumented immigrants in San Bernardino, Calif. From there, it metastasized into scores of similar proposals, many in communities with just a handful of immigrants, that would sanction employers, landlords and the immigrants themselves. Early last year, the state of Arizona adopted the harshest nativist law yet seen.

The San Bernardino ordinance was eventually voted down, but many other towns -- Hazleton, Pa., Valley Park, Mo., Farmers Branch, Texas, and Fremont, Neb., among others -- adopted their own versions of the California proposal. What's more, in the aftermath of Arizona's adoption of the highly controversial S.B. 1070 anti-immigrant statute, legislators in at least six other states and uncounted numbers of cities and towns are considering proposals for similar laws.

They may want to think twice. The towns that passed nativist laws in Pennsylvania, Missouri, Texas and Nebraska, along with the state of Arizona, have spent millions of dollars to defend them in court, and almost every judicial decision so far has gone against them. One community, faced with skyrocketing legal costs, had to raise property taxes, and another was forced to cut personnel and special events and even outsource its library. Only one had even a small part of its ordinance upheld in the courts.

That was just the beginning. The four towns and one state examined in this report all saw a crisis in race relations as conflicts between Latino immigrants and mostly white natives escalated. Latinos reported being threatened, shot at, subjected to racial taunts and more. Police are having trouble getting cooperation from any in their Latino communities. Pro-immigrant activists have been threatened with notes that promise to "shed blood" to "take back" communities. The mayor of one town had his house vandalized after opposing a proposed law and was warned by federal agents to be careful; he ended up retiring after four terms in office. Angry protests and counter-protests, along with dangerously rising tensions, have rocked one town after another. In some communities, business districts have largely collapsed.

Behind all of this stands one man: Kris Kobach, a former Kansas City law professor who was just elected Kansas secretary of state. For the better part of the last six years, Kobach has been chief legal counsel to the Immigration Reform Law Institute, which is the legal arm of the Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR). He helped to write and defend in court the laws in Hazleton, Valley Park, Farmers Branch, Fremont and Arizona, and he is seeking to do even more.

Kobach's affiliation with FAIR is important. For most of the last three decades, FAIR has been working, as its founder John Tanton once wrote, to preserve "a European-American majority, and a clear one at that." Although the organization is typically less than candid about its motives, its president Dan Stein has sounded similar notes. In a heretofore unknown oral history housed in a university library, Stein expressed his anger at the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which sought to end a longstanding and racist system of quotas. President Johnson, signing the act, had celebrated the demise of the old racist system, saying that "it will never again shadow the gate to the American nation with... prejudice." Stein didn't see it that way. The act, he said, was a "key mistake" in American policy forced by people who sought "to retaliate against Anglo-Saxon dominance" and create "chaos."

Even if the motives of Kobach are otherwise, the experience of those towns that have collaborated with him should serve as a stark warning. After the city of Albertville, Ala., decided against working with Kobach based on his track record, the publisher of the local Sand Mountain Reporter summed it up like this: "I fear Mr. Kobach targets towns like ours, and towns like Hazleton, Pa., Valley Park, Mo., and Farmers Branch, Texas, as financial windfalls. I think he preys on the legitimate concerns, the irrational fears and even some bigoted attitudes to convince cities to hire him to represent their interests in lawsuits that may not be winnable."

The American immigration system is surely broken, and comprehensive immigration reform seems like the only real solution -- a solution that has largely been staved off by nativist groups including FAIR. In the absence of national action, states and local communities have attempted to fill the gap, passing and defending ill-advised laws that seek to preempt federal power over immigration. But as this report makes clear, that path has proven a treacherous one -- a trail of tears.

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