Thursday, June 20, 2024

Imagine Alabama welcoming immigrants

  HB 56 — the anti-immigrant bill passed by the Alabama Legislature in 2011 — is a perfect example of the laws our legislators make.

  That’s not a compliment.

  HB 56 was a mean, miserable statute. It was legalized bullying in line with Alabama’s very worst traditions of attacking people with few if any means of fighting back.

  The law declared that illegal immigration was causing “economic hardship and lawlessness” in Alabama without giving a single example of that actually occurring.

  It used a seemingly innocent data-collection process to scare families into keeping their undocumented children out of school, a vicious way to evade a now-40-year-old U.S. Supreme Court decision upholding the right of those children to get a public education.

  It made it illegal for undocumented workers to apply for a job. It put religious organizations that transported a person without legal status at risk of legal sanctions. It allowed law enforcement to detain people they suspected of being in the country unlawfully (only the federal government can determine immigration status).

  On and on. It’s 71 pages of paranoia and nastiness.

  It took a while for the federal courts to catch up with the law. In the meantime, many families fled the state.

  And the alleged benefits of the law never materialized. Alabama lawmakers, who have a fascinating tendency to exalt rural life and demean agricultural labor, confidently predicted that Alabamians would flood into jobs “taken” from native-born residents. They soon discovered that tomato crops were rotting in the fields because no one could pick them. Farm work is skilled labor.

  In time, federal courts overturned most of HB 56.  But a few provisions remain.

  One is a ban on undocumented students attending Alabama’s public institutions of higher education.

  That’s pretty terrible. Perhaps not as terrible as arresting a job applicant, but rooted in a politics-as-segregation attitude that wafts off the law like smoke.

  So the effort to repeal it in the last legislative session was notable. Rep. Reed Ingram (R-Pike Road) sponsored a bill to alter the ban.

  Under Ingram’s bill, undocumented students who had completed high school or something akin to it and who had applied for legal status would be able to attend Alabama’s public colleges or universities.

  “If somebody comes over the border illegally, or are not wanting to contribute to society, then I don’t have any use for them going to college, but as long as they really want to work and get a job and give back to the community — it’s those people that we were targeting,” Ingram told Jemma Stephenson last month.

  The bill was co-sponsored by Rep. Terri Collins (R-Decatur), a co-sponsor of HB 56 in 2011. It passed the House and a committee in the Senate. However, the legislation stalled in the Senate over an attempt to require undocumented students to have applied for citizenship at least three years before enrolling in college.

  Ingram sold the bill as a workforce development project. It was a reasonable approach: making it easier to go to college will help improve the workforce. And in a Republican-controlled legislature, that’s probably the best way to sell it.

  But the bill doesn’t seem likely to have much of an effect.

  A big reason people cross into the country without permission is because the legal route can take years, and sometimes decades. The U.S. Customs and Immigration Service (USCIS) said at the end of last month that applications for employment-based permanent residence in Atlanta can take over two years to process. A child can’t put off their hunger pains for two years to accommodate that backlog.

  It’s even harder for a person who is already in the country to apply for status. Starting the process can lead to a 10-year ban on returning to the country if you ever go outside of it. You can apply for a provisional waiver of that ban, but as of the end of last month, the processing time for that was almost four yearsalmost four years.

  Whether you think undocumented immigrants should be able to attend college, very few will do so under this measure.

  What we really need is a full-on repudiation of HB 56. An anti-HB 56, if you will.

  One that acknowledges the reality of immigration in Alabama (namely, that there isn’t much of it) and our limited ability to shape the issue, for good or ill.

  But also one that encourages immigrants to build lives in Alabama.

  That includes letting kids go to college. But it would also allow their parents to obtain professional licenses. It might try to give them some kind of driver’s license to help them work. Maybe it would offer legal resources to those seeking status.

  It’s unlikely to happen in Alabama but not out of the realm of possibility: Other states in recent years have adopted policies similar to these.

  And our state could really use more people. Alabama’s population is aging. Our rural areas are in decline. Our workforce participation rate is below the national average.

  Could our government look at immigrants as future Alabamians and not threats?

  I hope so. That’s the only way we can move on from HB 56 and all the grief it has caused. That’s how you bring people of good faith to this state.

  You don’t tinker with a terrible law. You tear it up and then extend your hands to embrace the stranger.

  About the author: Brian Lyman is the editor of Alabama Reflector. He has covered Alabama politics since 2006 and worked at the Montgomery Advertiser, the Press-Register and The Anniston Star. A 2024 Pulitzer finalist for Commentary, his work has also won awards from the Associated Press Managing Editors, the Alabama Press Association and the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human Rights.

  This article was published by Alabama Reflector, which is part of States Newsroom, the nation’s largest state-focused nonprofit news organization.

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