Our immigration quandary
CHICAGO In the most recent example of sending mixed signals about illegal immigration, a federal judge has temporarily blocked Alabama’s far-ranging new immigration law, which is widely seen as tougher and more cruel than the infamous “papers, please” one that Arizona adopted a little over a year ago.
Voted into law last May, the Alabama statute was supposed to go into effect Sept. 1. It raised the ire of immigrant advocates and religious groups with its requirement that local police officers check the immigration status of certain suspects and detain the illegal ones. It also put U.S. citizens and legal residents such as employers, landlords and good Samaritans in danger of becoming criminals themselves for knowingly employing, harboring, transporting or renting apartments to illegal immigrants.
Additionally, illegal immigrants feeling bold enough to apply for a job in Alabama would be charged with committing a felony if they presented false documents. And Alabama’s public schools would have to flirt with violation of the Supreme Court’s 1982 decision giving all children, regardless of immigration status, the right to attend public school because verifying a student’s legal status and reporting it back to the state would presumably deter already fearful families from schooling their children.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn has given herself until the end of September to consider all the legal arguments involved to determine whether the various aspects of the law are constitutional. She would have to be living in a cave to miss the delicious irony presented by this situation.
The Obama administration is arguing that statutes such as Arizona’s and Alabama’s are unconstitutional because immigration law is the exclusive purview of the federal government. At the same time, the administration insists on enforcing the Secure Communities program, which asks local law enforcement officials to identify illegal immigrants based on fingerprints checked against Department of Justice, FBI and Department of Homeland Security records.
Alabama, Arizona and other states got frustrated with the complete lack of federal leadership in dealing with the 11 million illegal immigrants in this country and decided to take immigration enforcement upon themselves. But the teeth of Alabama’s law will probably be pulled as Arizona’s were last April when the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals suspended most of the Arizona statute.
Writing for the majority opinion in the Arizona case, Judge Richard A. Paez codified that the issue was not whether specific aspects of laws could be executed constitutionally—a main complaint of those opposing the Alabama law—but that such matters are out of the state’s hands.
“Even state and local officers authorized … to investigate, apprehend, or detain immigrants do not have the authority to remove immigrants; removal is exclusively the purview of the federal government,” Paez wrote. “We do not believe that Congress intended to grant states the authority to remove immigrants.”
Is your head spinning yet? Of course it is, folks, we have come full circle.
In 2005, the legal and illegal immigrant community went into revolt after Wisconsin Republican Rep. Jim Sensenbrenner sponsored a bill that was very similar to the one Alabama passed. His measure also would have criminalized those who assisted illegal immigrants.
After two years of mega-marches calling for both a stop on all deportations and an amnesty program, a bipartisan immigration reform proposal came close to passing in 2007. At that time, the immigrant advocates’ rallying cry was that you can’t deport all the illegal immigrants from the country, so the states took this contention to heart and instead focused on making those immigrants want to leave on their own.
In the first six months of 2011, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures, every state considered immigration issues during their legislative sessions, proposed 1,592 bills or resolutions and adopted 246 of them, all designed to fill the leadership vacuum in Washington.
Because the conventional wisdom says that no one will come to the table to discuss a workable solution until after the 2012 presidential election, the situation will continue to fester.
Judge Blackburn has her work cut out for her. No matter what she decides about Alabama’s law, she’ll be committing an act of futility.
Esther Cepeda is a columnist for the Washington Post Writers Group. Her email address is email@example.com.