Why declaring war on the undocumented is a really bad idea

By Alan Bean

A federal judge has upheld key portions of an Alabama immigration law that will likely drive thousands of Latino students out of the public school system.  Under the new law, public schools can now determine the immigration status of students.  Police can also question residents suspected of being undocumented and hold them without bond.

The Alabama law, as originally passed, was designed to make it impossible for undocumented residents to live in Alabama.  Judge Sharon Blackburn has temporarily blocked provisions that would:

_ Make it a crime for an undocumented immigrant to solicit work.

_ Make it a crime to transport or harbor an undocumented immigrant.

_ Allow discrimination lawsuits against companies that dismiss legal workers while hiring undocumented immigrants.

_ Forbid businesses from taking tax deductions for wages paid to workers who are in the country illegally.

_ Bar undocumented immigrants from attending public colleges.

_ Bar drivers from stopping along a road to hire temporary workers.

_ Make federal verification the only way in court to determine if someone is here legally.

Since the Hispanic population of Alabama is 3.9 percent, one wonders why state politicians are suddenly so exercised about immigration.  It’s simple.  Conservative politicians got elected by promising to clamp down on illegal immigration. 

Meanwhile, Texas Governor Rick Perry is taking heat for his support of the Texas DREAM Act, passed in 2001. According to the Washington Post,

 The measure applies to undocumented students who have graduated from a Texas high school, lived in the state for three years and signed an affidavit promising to seek legal status. They can become eligible for scholarships and pay in-state tuition rather than international student rates, which are sometimes double and triple the resident fees.

True, Perry did demagogue the immigration issue during the recent legislative session by threatening to crack down on so-called “amnesty” cities that are refusing to enforce current immigration law.  But, like George W. Bush, the previous Texas governor, Perry’s stance on immigration has been moderate, at least by Republican standards. 

Demographics have a lot to do with it.  The Texas population is 37.6 Hispanic and growing.  Politicians like Bush and Perry know they cannot completely ignore the Latino community forever.  The Republican Party of Texas is rabidly anti-immigrant (if the party platform is anything to go by) but this nativist sentiment is only one factor Texas politicians must consider.

As I write, two Hispanic workers, both under 25, are installing tile in the Bean family guest room.  Hispanic labor is a powerful economic reality in border states like Texas.  Hispanic workers are industrious, work-hardened, and dependable.  If they are undocumented, they are generally willing to work for considerably less than legal Texas citizens.  Many of Rick Perry’s most influential backers would go out of business if  half their work force was suddenly incarcerated or deported. 

Rick Perry doesn’t want to give undocumented Hispanics a road to full citizenship, but he does want to take advantage of an enormous pool of cheap and dependable labor.  Moreover, educated citizens, legal or illegal, are less likely to join gangs or draw public assistance. 

Being tough on immigration might be good politics in Texas, but it makes little practical sense.

Alabama politicians can afford to flex their muscles and pound their chests on the immigration issue–it gives them that ruthless, take-no-prisoners image that is currently in vogue.  When you are talking about less than 3% of the voting population, what’s the downside?

If the anti-immigrant movement has its way, Americas prisons will soon be overflowing with undocumented people, most of them Mexican nationals.  Latinos comprised over 50% of federal defendants imprisoned in the federal system this year, an amazing statistic when you consider that Hispanics comprise only 16% of the American population (19.7% of federal prisoners sentenced this year are African-American and 26.4 are Anglo).

If states like Alabama and Arizona are pointing the way to a brave new world, the number of Hispanic inmates in state prisons will soon explode.

There is nothing new about any of this. In America, professional police departments were created in the mid 19th century in response to a rapid influx if immigrants, many of them fleeing the Irish Potato famine.  In the years immediately following the WWI, an ugly nativist movement, featuring the resurrection of the Ku Klux Klan, took hold in America, largely in response to Eastern European immigration.  The war on drugs was instituted as a way to control large populations of unemployed young men living in urban American ghettos, products of the great black migration out of the South in the first half of the 20th century.  In each instance, politicians used demographic change as a springboard to re-election.

The mantra “what part of ‘illegal’ do you not understand?” has a certain logic to it.  Alabama officials claim that they are simply trying to bring criminals to justice.  Entering the state of Alabama illegally is a crime.

But has it ever been wise to arrest and prosecute everyone who steps over the legal line?  Most crimes are not prosecuted.  We don’t have enough police officers and prosecutors to handle the consequences of a full-scale crackdown on illegal immigration and, unless we want to transform America into a full-blown police state, we never will.  Most of the problems in our criminal justice system are driven by the fact that investigators have too many cases to investigate and prosecutors have too many cases to prosecute.  When you don’t have time to carefully examine the facts of a case, you identify the most likely suspect and manufacture testimony around your theory of the crime. 

America boasts an incarceration rate five to six times higher than other Western democracies.  Does this make us a nation of criminals?  Apart from homicide (Americans kill each other at a truly alarming rate) crime statistics in the United States are similar to what you find in France, Germany or Great Britain, countries that lack our perverse desire to punish every crime that can possibly be punished.  A strong criminal justice system is a necessary component of any stable democracy; but where do we draw the line?  The war on drugs has been a massive miscalculation; our growing war on the undocumented promises to be equally disastrous.

5 thoughts on “Why declaring war on the undocumented is a really bad idea

  1. Night before last Patricia and I went to Amarillo to hear Rick somebody speak on and for “No mas Muertas” (no more death), a ministry of compassion in the Ariz. desert. Some one used the term “Illegal aliens” and he said there are no illegal people, just undocumented. I like using the term “Undocumented Neighbors.” As I was thinking more about it, I thought “Neighbors without Papers” is even better. I really dislike the term “alien.” It reeks of otherness and separation, and is “alien” to the Good News. I remember when Baptists used to argue–some may still–about “alien immersion” referring to Christians with other than Baptist immersion, and whether such should be accepted for membership.

  2. When teaching about immigration, I always ask my students to not use the words “illegal” and “aliens” together. The term “illegal aliens” is purposely used to create fear, separate us, and simply just another socially constructed label meant to divide us. Instead I encouraged my students to be mindful of how word choices can harm others. Until now, “undocumented immigrants” was preferable. Now even the word “immigrant” has become inflammatory. I love the humanistic and loving term “Neighbors without Papers.” I am going to use it with my students when we address this issue in class.

    Thank you Charles!

  3. The immigration issue also has a negative impact on Latinos who were born, raised, and educated in the U.S. Often times the anti-immigrant crowd place these Latinos in the same mix. As a leader of an Latino civil-rights organization, I am frequently confronted by the anti-immigrant crowd with the same question “what part of ‘illegal’ do you not understand?” My respond – “the same part your ancestors didn’t understand”.

    The Alabama law is the latest of ongoing efforts to criminalize immigration status.

  4. Thank you Donna. For me the concept of universal neighborhood comes directly from Jesus and the Parable of the Samaritan. I don’ t say “Good Samaritan” because that implies that most Samaritans are not good. Like I used to hear as a child, “Well, there are some good n—-rs.”

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