Soon after Alabama passed its 2011 immigrant law, "Sara M." told me that a friend, a Honduran immigrant, had been beaten and robbed in Birmingham. Two neighbors witnessed the assault, brought her friend inside, and tended to his wounds. But they did not call the police or take him to the hospital because he was afraid of being asked about his unauthorized status. Sara said she called the police and asked if her friend would have to reveal his status if he came in to report the crime. When they replied "Yes," she hung up.
Sara's story is not just about the vulnerability of unauthorized immigrants to crime. It is also a story about how unauthorized immigrants in Alabama are deeply connected to their communities. The neighbors didn't ask if Sara's friend was unauthorized, or if a man who had broken U.S. immigration law deserved their help. Sara did not worry that calling the police might bring her under suspicion. Not one of them stopped to think that their actions might be viewed as criminal harboring under Alabama's new law. Each simply saw a friend and neighbor who needed help.
Perhaps one of the greatest defects in the U.S. immigration system, including Alabama's 2011 law, is the failure to recognize the profound ties millions of unauthorized immigrants have to U.S. citizens through family, work, and community. Over the past 20 years, Human Rights Watch has documented what happens when immigrants' rights are abused. Millions of non-citizens have been deported without due consideration of their American families and the hardship the other family members will endure without the person who has been sent away from them.
Immigrant farmworker women and girls who grow the food Americans eat face a high risk of sexual violence and harassment. Hundreds of thousands of non-citizens are held in immigration detention each year, often in poor conditions, as part of a process in which even legal residents can be deported permanently without counsel for offenses as minor as marijuana possession. This bewildering and unfair system undermines respect for the rule of law.
Harsh enforcement of outdated laws has come at a high economic cost as well. According to a recent report by the Migration Policy Institute, spending on federal immigration enforcement exceeds spending by all criminal federal law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI and DEA, combined.
After years of inaction, the recent announcements by President Barack Obama and members of Congress that they will push for comprehensive reform are encouraging. But their proposals don't address many of the ongoing abuses in the current enforcement system. The United States can regulate migration better if it creates a fair system that protects people's rights.
A fair system would recognize the need to preserve family unity, would protect people from abuse, and would require due process. Effectively protecting these rights for 11 million unauthorized immigrants through a broad path to legalization would reinforce respect for everyone's rights and help to protect us all.
With its recent experience with its own immigrant law, Alabama has a unique role to play as the national debate unfolds. Like the Good Samaritans who helped Sara's friend, many Alabamians have witnessed firsthand the effects of Alabama's harsh law on their families and their communities. We hope these Alabamians will speak out on behalf of their neighbors about the urgent need for truly comprehensive immigration reform.