Saturday, October 8, 2011

Cameron Smith: The Politics of the immigration shame game

  This week, The New York Times ran an editorial entitled "Alabama's Shame" which provided a unique perspective on Alabama's immigration law. The piece suggested that the law is Alabama's attempt to make illegal immigrants "isolated, unemployable, poor, defenseless and uneducated."

  The Times' piece on Alabama's immigration law calls for President Obama "to show stronger leadership in defending core American values in the face of the hostility that has overtaken Alabama and so many other states." Other commentaries have likened Alabama's immigration enforcement to the Jim Crow era where the evils of racism were given the force of law.

  But is Alabama really such a cruel and inhospitable place that those who abide by the rule of law fear for their safety and economic security? Have Alabamians failed to learn from a tragic racist past such that they are willing to once again pass laws designed to penalize individuals based solely on the color of their skin? Or ... have the majority of Alabamians simply had enough of the law being trampled right in front of their eyes?

  And the established federal immigration is clear. Improper entry into the United States carries both criminal and civil penalties:

8 USC 1325. Improper entry by alien

(a) Improper time or place; avoidance of examination or inspection; misrepresentation and concealment of facts

Any alien who

(1) enters or attempts to enter the United States at any time or place other than as designated by immigration officers, or

(2) eludes examination or inspection by immigration officers, or

(3) attempts to enter or obtains entry to the United States by a willfully false or misleading representation or the willful concealment of a material fact, shall, for the first commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18 or imprisoned not more than 6 months, or both, and, for a subsequent commission of any such offense, be fined under title 18, or imprisoned not more than 2 years, or both.

(b) Improper time or place; civil penalties

Any alien who is apprehended while entering (or attempting to enter) the United States at a time or place other than as designated by immigration officers shall be subject to a civil penalty of-

(1) at least $50 and not more than $250 for each such entry (or attempted entry); or

(2) twice the amount specified in paragraph (1) in the case of an alien who has been previously subject to a civil penalty under this subsection.

Civil penalties under this subsection are in addition to, and not in lieu of, any criminal or other civil penalties that may be imposed.

  Other federal provisions enforced by Alabama's immigration law carry a similar mix of civil and criminal penalties. But the federal government has largely failed to consistently impose immigration sanctions for the last several decades. This is not a phenomenon peculiar to Alabama, but national reality. Both employers and immigrants have relied on the lack of enforcement in their business operations and daily lives, respectively.

  Alabama's immigration law clearly stands in the uncomfortable position of providing "teeth" for federal laws that have been essentially meaningless. Admittedly, sudden enforcement sends shockwaves through illegal immigrant communities and the businesses that rely on this labor supply. The results are the economic and social reactions that Alabama is currently experiencing. But are Alabamians being "mean" or "racist" when they attempt to enforce the law where the federal government has failed?

  Legal immigrants have nothing to fear and no reason to hide in Alabama. Alabama's immigration law clearly and repeatedly prohibits enforcement based on race, color, ethnicity or national origin. Alabamians must be vigilant to ensure that racism is not tolerated in the enforcement any of Alabama laws, including the new immigration law.  However, that vigilance should be exercised in concert with the enforcement of state law rather than as a sensational political weapon to undermine it.

  Unfortunately, detractors of the immigration law are using Alabama's racially charged past as leverage against enforcement altogether. But the very notion that immigration status is equivalent to race is not only wrong but deeply offensive. Alabamians held down because of the color of their skin had absolutely no choice in the matter. Illegal immigrants, no matter how positive their intentions, actively make the choice for both themselves and their families to enter the U.S. by impermissible means.

  The differences in reaction to essentially the same provisions of law undermine the charge of racism even further. Where is the outcry against racism and cruelty for existing federal law? Why are there no protesters waiting at the churches of Alabama's federal delegation? The answer is simple: Where there is minimal accountability for adhering to the law, there is no conflict.

  Alabama's enforcement attempts are well short of the ideal immigration system. And the constitutional limits on what Alabama may permissibly enforce virtually ensure that result. For example, because Alabama has no ability to set up an efficient temporary immigrant labor system, landscapers, farmers, and other industries relying on immigrant labor will be at a competitive disadvantage to their counterparts in other states who are able to take advantage to the lax immigration enforcement

  Alabama and the rest of the states NEED Congress to take up the issue rather than simply letting the states to do the best they can while the Department of Justice sues to protect the current practice that created the problem in the first places. Alabama is not cruel, inhumane, or racist for expecting that laws should be enforced. Rather than singling out Alabama as a hateful state, those who oppose current immigration laws should fight to have them changed through legislation in Washington as well as in Montgomery. The real "shame" for Alabama is that the state is the scapegoat for members of Congress and a long line of presidents failing to do their jobs.

  About the author: Cameron Smith is General Counsel for the Alabama Policy Institute, a non-partisan, non-profit research and education organization dedicated to the preservation of free markets, limited government and strong families, which are indispensable to a prosperous society.

  This article was published by the Alabama Policy Institute.

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