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Alabama's Immigration Ruling: What It Means For Your State

This week’s misguided ruling by a federal judge in Alabama that upheld parts of the harshest anti-immigrant state law in the nation, HB 56, is a devastating setback to our nation’s deeply held values, Alabama’s economic prosperity, and the well-being of all Alabama residents. The Alabama decision does not represent existing and binding Supreme Court precedent, and it stands as an outlier in stark contrast to other recent federal rulings on similarly draconian anti-immigrant laws, including Arizona’s SB 1070, where the courts have ruled similar provisions unconstitutional — including those that require law enforcement officials to ask for immigration papers from anyone they suspect on sight of being undocumented. If allowed to stand, this decision would put countless Alabama families and children in danger, drive taxpayers out of the state, sink Alabama’s economy, and set a chilling example that other states would be foolhardy to follow.

The confusing decision set down by U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn upheld some of the most extreme parts of HB 56. These provisions include one requiring that schools look into the immigration status of students and their parents — a requirement that stands in direct contradiction to established Supreme Court precedent that ensures all students of families living in the United States access to a public school education. Other provisions of the law that Judge Blackburn rashly and erroneously concluded should be allowed to stay in effect includes language that makes it a crime to fail to carry immigration documents, mandates that undocumented immigrants driving without a license be jailed indefinitely, and restricts contracts between government, private citizens, and immigrants, that may limit access to housing and even such basic utilities as water service for undocumented workers. Many of these provisions were upheld despite being explicitly rejected by other courts, and the judicial process should eventually conclude that the arguments presented by proponents of HB 56 do not hold water.

More broadly, the judicial process underway in Alabama should send a clear message to other states considering anti-immigrant bills — which failed in many states this year, most recently in New Mexico — that enacting economically destructive anti-immigrant measures opposed in almost all cases by a wide spectrum of local businesses, religious groups, civil rights groups, law enforcement officials, and community groups is a road to economic catastrophe. Undocumented workers in Alabama paid $130.3 million in state and local taxes in 2010, and comprised roughly 4.2% of the state’s workforce (or 95,000 workers) in 2010, according to recent reports. Recent analyses have concluded that the state could lose an astounding $2.6 billion in economic activity if the provisions in the law were allowed to stand and all undocumented immigrants and their families removed from the state. But even if the blatantly unconstitutional parts of the law are eventually rejected by the courts, Alabama and other states that may follow their path by pursuing anti-immigrant laws are already ensuring economic damage to their states. Even Arizona is now coming to the realization that anti-immigrant laws have been disastrous for their states. Earlier this year, dozens of Arizona CEOs, representing corporations such as US Airways, Intel Corp., and The Arizona Republic, wrote a letter expressing opposition to further anti-immigrant measures, realizing the already monumental economic damage that has already resulted even though the most drastic provisions have been prevented from taking effect by the courts.

The evidence is clear: anti-immigrant laws such as those pursued by Alabama kill jobs, hurt state economies, endanger communities, and drive away taxpayers — in addition to systematizing discrimination in a manner that clearly does not represent American values. Laws like these are also a body blow to state budgets around the nation, still struggling from historic revenue shortfalls, and which will now be forced to account for millions defending them in expensive and needless legal battles. Just this week, it was reported that the Department of Justice was looking at challenging anti-immigrant measures in Utah, Georgia, Indiana, and South Carolina, in addition to the current legal challenges underway in Arizona and Alabama.

There is another approach being advanced at the state level. State legislators across the nation working with State Legislators for Progressive Immigration Policy (SLPIP) have been on the front lines in developing, introducing, and advancing immigration measures that would grow state economies, create jobs, and result in safer and healthier communities. For example, instead of driving away talented immigrant students, these lawmakers are proposing tuition equity measures that will help keep a skilled workforce in their respective states. Business leaders representing major companies and forward-thinking elected officials have also been strongly highlighting at both the congressional and state levels the need for immigrant workers to stay here and power the nation’s economy forward, because they know that being pro-immigrant is good for business.

The cost of laws like HB56 to our nation’s values and to our states’ bottom lines could not be clearer. Anti-immigrant laws like these represent fundamentally irresponsible wastes of public resources, and ineffective approaches to immigration. Flawed and indefensible rulings like Judge Blackburn’s should not confuse the matter: anti-immigrant state laws like Alabama’s are not only unconstitutional, they are a path to absolute ruin for state economies.