Artur Davis: Alabama’s Ugly New Immigration Law

Alabama’s new immigration law is about to become a flashpoint in the culture wars.

It is the first hard push to the right by a moderate Republican Governor who is an ally of the state’s powerful, and liberal, teachers’ union and who has soft-pedaled his opposition to what his party calls “Obamacare.” I think, taken in its totality, it is a push too far, and the Obama Justice Department should challenge its worst features as fiercely as it has attacked Arizona’s controversial 2010 restrictions.

I don’t criticize the provisions that make businesses confirm the legal status of their employees through E-Verify, or the stiff sanctions the law imposes on companies who knowingly hire illegal immigrants: those policies add teeth to current laws that are reasonable but often under-enforced.

There is also a sound underlying rationale: employers who hire undocumented workers are not motivated by a rush of generosity, but usually by a desire to undercut wages and to pad their payrolls with vulnerable, cheap laborers who can’t sue and who fear deportation too much to complain about lax safety standards.

But what are we to make of parts of the law that require schools to determine the legal status of their children? Schools cannot by law exclude kids on citizenship grounds, for the pragmatic reason that we prefer undocumented children spend the day in classrooms rather than street gangs. So verification can only be a ruse to ferret out parents who don’t have permission to be here, whether or not they have committed a deportable offense. That crosses the line from enforcement to stigmatization.

And the sections that make it a crime to transport an illegal immigrant? Even Arizona’s tough laws are aimed only at identifying illegal immigrant drivers who arguably may be endangering the roads: the Alabama approach risks turning association into a felony.

Then are the sanctions that criminalize renting or selling to illegal immigrants. This is a bluntly crafted ax that will legitimize housing discrimination against both undocumenteds and people who look like them. Moreover, for every threat to community safety it eliminates, it will exclude substantially more families whose religiosity and work ethic are exemplary and by any other standard, conventionally conservative and Southern.

One of the premises of the Alabama statute is that local institutions like schools and police departments should be deployed more broadly in the campaign to apprehend illegal immigrants. That is the voice of frustration at the bipartisan failure to conceive a credible national immigration policy.

But it is also the voice of something uglier: it starts with turning education, of all things, into a threat, and it ends with profiling and putting a mark on certain people. That is altogether bad business for a state where too many times, in too many areas, Faulkner was right: “the past is never dead. Its not even past.”

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