Alabama’s plain-spoken immigration policy

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Esther Cepeda
Thursday, October 6, 2011
— Now that Alabama got a federal judge’s permission to execute key parts of its anti-illegal immigration law—most notably, requiring that police officers check the immigration status of suspects believed to be in the country illegally, detaining those who are, and asking schools to verify a student’s legal status and keep records—it has succeeded in articulating a message that this country is ambivalent about.

Alabama is saying: Illegal immigrants, we don’t want you here. So unless you want to get caught up in our laws, get out as soon as you can.

Linton Joaquin, general counsel for the National Immigration Law Center, told reporters at a recent news conference that even though the law’s requirement to ask students about legal status doesn’t go into full effect until next year’s registration, he’s already heard that existing students have been asked for proof of their status. News reports have varied, but some estimates say about 2,000 Hispanic students are missing from Alabama’s schools since the law went into effect last week.

It is tragic that parents are so scared of possible deportation for their children or themselves that they are forgoing a benefit they are entitled to—the Supreme Court ruled in 1982 that all children, regardless of immigration status, have the right to attend public school. And it’s undeniable that other provisions of the new law put legal immigrants and U.S.-born residents at risk of being victim to racial profiling or other forms of discrimination toward those who “look” or “seem” like they might be illegal immigrants. There’s nothing remotely compassionate in this situation.

But is it wrong that Alabama is sending clear messages to its illegal immigrant population about the ramifications of their choices?

For children it means that once they leave the protected legal status of being students who are treated no differently than U.S.-born students, they face a life in which they can’t qualify for student loans to attend college or work legally. There is no American dream for them.

In fact, the student-specific aspects of this law appears to be a direct rebuke to DREAM Act-eligible young adults, and their supporters, who have spent the last two years fighting for a path to legalization with the confrontational tagline “undocumented and unafraid.” The “Dreamers” are emblematic of our mixed messages to illegal immigrants: We tell them that the promise of America has always been that hard work leads to a better life.

But for illegal-immigrant students, that’s not true—no matter how much they’ve made of their constitutionally protected K-12 education, there is a brick wall awaiting their graduation. States across the country have battled to keep illegal immigrants from being eligible for in-state tuition, and there are very few scholarship opportunities for them.

Alabama seems to be saying: “If you’re undocumented, you really should be afraid.” Aside from the fact that it’s heartbreaking, it’s true.

The Obama administration has deported a little over 1 million illegal immigrants since 2009 and has affirmed that it won’t slow down, regardless of its yet-to-be-instituted review of 300,000 cases to spare those that don’t have violent criminal backgrounds. Various versions of the DREAM Act and comprehensive reform bills have been routinely shot down in Washington for 10 years—during which frightened immigrants have been told to hang in there, because there’s always next year.

There is absolutely no substantive legislative dialogue in sight on the topic of what to do with the 11 million illegal immigrants—who, according to recent news reports, return again and again, even after being deported.

As painful anti-illegal immigrant laws are implemented across the country, shouldn’t the American people have the courage to consider whether Alabama’s honest, if merciless, tactics are really any worse than the “better life” illegal immigrants are falsely promised when its companies, farmers and private citizens offer them jobs or benefit from their work?

And is Alabama’s forthrightness ultimately more or less damaging than when families are reassured by politicians to just hang on because a path to legalization is just around the corner? Some might find all of these approaches equally cruel.

Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is estherjcepeda@washpost.com.

Last updated: 6:47 pm Thursday, December 13, 2012

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