January 25, 2012

“If you've been here 25 years and you got three kids, two grandkids, you've been paying taxes, obeying the law, you belong to a local church. I don't think we're going to separate you from your family, uproot you forcefully and kick you out.”

When Newt Gingrich spoke these words during a presidential debate, the other Republican candidates largely decried them as promoting “amnesty.” They have instead promoted fences, employer sanctions, and other “enforcement-only” measures. Gingrich’s recent win in South Carolina, however, should remind the remaining candidates — as well as any politician who wants to address illegal immigration — that according to a December Fox News poll, a supermajority of Americans, including Republicans, want a more practical and humane solution.

These Americans recognize that many unauthorized immigrants in this country  have deep and extensive ties to the US, have US citizen family, work for — or even own — American businesses, and  are an integral part of their local communities. They recognize that it is impossible to deport 11 million people without hurting the entire country. And if any candidate continues to believe enforcement-only legislation is feasible or fair, he only has to look at Alabama, which essentially has put a plan of attrition into effect.

The sponsors of the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, commonly known as HB 56, have not been shy about their intended goal. As Alabama State Representative Mickey Hammon stated, “[HB 56] attacks every aspect of an illegal alien’s life… This bill is designed to make it difficult for them to live here so they will self-deport.”

Other states like Arizona and Georgia passed similar laws, but Alabama is the only state in which most of the provisions of the law went into effect. And as Human Rights Watch found, as documented in our recent report “No Way to Live,” the Beason-Hammon Act already has had a significant impact on unauthorized immigrants, the communities in which they live, and the state as a whole.

State government offices broadly interpreted a provision to require proof of legal status when signing up for utility service or licenses. So officials told a mother who has been living in the US for 15 years that they wouldn’t renew the registration tag for her family’s mobile home.

The law denies unauthorized immigrants equal protection of the law. Two restaurant workers trying to sue for unpaid wages were told by a lawyer that they had no right to do that under the new law. A victim of assault and robbery didn’t report the crime after the police told his friend they would inquire into his immigration status. Attorneys have even questioned whether the law imposes a duty on them to report unauthorized clients, while some judges have reportedly said they would report any unauthorized immigrant in their courtrooms.

In some ways, these are the bill’s intended consequences. What the sponsors may not have intended is the impact on US citizens and legal residents.

The impact has been especially severe on children of unauthorized immigrants, many of them US citizens. A 27-year-old woman, in the US for 20 years, did not take her 8-year-old daughter to the hospital when she had an asthma attack, fearing arrest. Although the provision requiring schools to check students’ immigration status was temporarily blocked, many families withdrew their children and those who remain are fearful and anxious. A first-grade teacher struggled to fight back tears as she described how her students have asked her if she would adopt them if anything happened to their parents.

Residents of Latino descent, including citizens and permanent residents, have reported increased harassment and discrimination. A doctor, a permanent resident, said his car was stopped by a state trooper who gave no reason and was allowed to proceed only when he produced an Alabama driver’s license. A pharmacy clerk at a discount store chain refused to fill a prescription for a permanent resident because she was not a citizen. Another mother, a US citizen from a long-time Alabama family, was heartbroken when her US citizen daughter, who is part Latino, came home from school crying because her classmate had told her she would have to “go back to Mexico.”

Unauthorized immigrants in Alabama paid an estimated $130 million in state and local taxes in 2010. But local economies that grew with the immigrant community are rapidly shrinking.  Farmers are facing a shortage of workers so severe that the state is considering using prison labor. Communities have been broken as families have left: one minister reported his congregation had decreased from 100 people to 25. Business leaders have called the law a mistake, fearing damage to the state’s image and potential for investment.

Most Americans don’t want their country to end up like Alabama. The Republican presidential candidates should heed them, and whoever wins the election this November should work with Congress to do what is in their power: pass smart, humane, and effective immigration reform.

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Grace Meng is a researcher in the US program at Human Rights Watch and author of a new report about the Alabama law, “No Way to Live.”