It’s comforting to know we have the courts when draconian immigration laws get past state houses. Arizona’s SB 1070 has twice been dismissed in federal court, and Alabama and Georgia copycat laws in Alabama (HB 56) and Georgia (HB 87) face similar legal challenges. While the courts are vital in protecting minority rights, the judiciary alone cannot protect our country from an offensive against immigrants.
Anti-immigration advocates are working hard to spread these laws and bring them to justice. Immigrant advocates and allies across the country will therefore need a strong response to break their momentum.
Alabama’s HB 56 and Georgia’s HB 87 summarize everything that is wrong with the state’s legislative efforts. Among other things, they empower local law enforcement officers to verify the immigration status of anyone they suspect are unauthorized immigrants (Alabama) or in violation of the law (Georgia), and mandate that businesses continue to use a federal electronic verification system (E-Verify) are piloting or risk losing their licenses (Alabama and Georgia).
Alabama law goes further. It creates state crimes for immigrants who do not carry a document proving their legal status and for anyone who knowingly offers ridesharing or renting an apartment to an unauthorized immigrant. (A similar Georgian provision on transporting unauthorized immigrants only applies to those who have broken another law.) It also prohibits unauthorized immigrants from attending public colleges and forces public schools to determine student immigration status.
The rules on transportation and housing open the door to a veritable group of immigrant communities and the citizens who interact with them, much like the “housing” provisions in the “Scythe Burning Act” of 2005 that caused a national outcry. Public school registration, meanwhile, provides a back door to scare undocumented immigrants from public schools, in violation of a 1982 Supreme Court ruling that all children regardless of immigration status have the right to public education.
No wonder Wade Henderson, President and CEO of the Leadership Council for Civil and Human Rights, stated that Alabama’s “draconian initiative is so depressing that Bull Connor himself would be impressed.”
As in the case of Arizona, these laws are challenged on the basis that the federal government has sole constitutional authority to enforce immigration law and should maintain it, otherwise we will create a confusing collage of immigration enforcement across the country. Just as important, as in the case of Arizona, these laws raise serious racial profiling and public safety concerns for immigrants and citizens alike.
The economic rationale for these laws is also dubious at best. In Georgia, for example, Governor Nathan Deal based estimates of the cost of illegal immigration on a highly troubled Federation for American Immigration Reform (FAIR) report classified as a “hate group” by the Southern Poverty Law Center. In the meantime, business leaders, tourism promoters and producers have spoken out publicly against HB 87 because of its economic and reputational risk.
Although the legal challenge quickly emerged after Arizona passed SB 1070 last April, laws against immigration states continue to spread as they are sponsored by an impressive nativist network – namely, John Tanton’s national network of organizations, to the FAIR and other “hate groups” include endorsed by major benefactors and foundations like the ultra-conservative Colcom Foundation.
With the deep-pocketed Tanton network firmly behind the states’ nativist legislative efforts, these laws will continue to spread unless immigrant advocacy groups can forcefully oppose it.
The immigration movement has responded and opposed laws like this, and national interest groups have pledged legal challenges that are likely to block HB 56 and HB 87 in whole or in part. But the anti-immigration lobby is learning how to take advantage of the legal system. Conservative legal figures like Kris Kobach, the new Kansas Secretary of State and an employee of the FAIR Legal Department, have developed strategies to promote these laws as widely as possible and ensure sufficient constitutionality to withstand legal challenges.
The Supreme Court, with its Conservative majority, has already upheld an important part of the anti-immigration legislative packages in a case involving a previous law in Arizona that makes E-Verify binding and threatens to revoke the licenses of companies that fail to comply with these regulations. In light of the E-Verify ruling, the Supreme Court also asked an appeals court to reconsider an ordinance in Hazleton, Pennsylvania that makes it illegal to rent homes to an unauthorized immigrant. Kobach and his allies are already trying to build on such a precedent in drafting new laws as FAIR claimed in drafting the Alabama law.
All of this suggests that court battles alone will not curb the spread of laws against immigrants.
In recognition of this, organizations such as Alabama Appleseed and the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama have rallied against their state’s bill and are already planning their response to its passage, including possible prayer vigils, rallies and efforts to involve allies outside the state.
Meanwhile, immigrant-friendly groups like Somos Georgia and the Georgia Latino Alliance for Human Rights are organizing a “human rights summer” in communities across the state and a “non-compliance” day. Somos Georgia and its allies have also called for a national tourism boycott by the state, which some progressive organizations have already heeded. Given that organizing immigrants in much of the Southeast is still ongoing, these groups need external pressure to be successful.
The economic and reputational costs for Arizona after the boycott of SB 1070 had an important demonstration effect. Twenty-six state legislators have subsequently rejected copycat laws, and even Arizona’s beet-red legislation has rejected additional laws against immigrants this year.
However, without a vocal national response to Alabama and Georgia laws equivalent to the SB 1070 boycott, this type of state law could become the new norm. Copycat lawmakers will interpret the Arizona boycott as flash-in-the-pan, while the Tanton Network will continue to work to find ways to get nativist laws to pass legal models.
Every time one of these laws is passed, it encourages their followers – not just in other red states, but purple and blue states as well. Nativism may have its strongest expression below the Mason-Dixon line, but it is not limited to the south and southwest. If we don’t all fight it now, there could soon be a knock on all of our doors.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Daniel Altschuler has Written extensively on Central American Policy and US Immigration Policy for publications including the Christian Science Monitor, Foreign Policy, The Nation, CNN, and Dissent. He is a contributing blogger at AQ Online and received his PhD in Politics from Oxford University, where he was a Rhodes Fellow. To read more of his writing, visit danielaltschuler.com.
All of the opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of Americas Quarterly or its editors.