How the Harshest Immigration Law in the US Ended in Disaster

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MSNBC reporter Benjy Sarlin traveled down to Alabama to see the impact of the most punitive law against unauthorized immigrants in the US firsthand.

Diane Martell, 17, right, leans on her parents Maurcio and Guadalupe on the porch of their home in Bessemer, Ala. The Martells are illegal immigrants, as are most of the residents of this trailer park, and they live in fear of Alabama's harsh immigration laws. (AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)

Diane Martell, 17, right, leans on her parents Maurcio and Guadalupe on the porch of their home in Bessemer, Ala. The Martells are illegal immigrants, as are most of the residents of this trailer park, and they live in fear of Alabama's harsh immigration laws. "We are human beings," Martell says. "We are not criminals, and we are not aliens and we cannot just stay silent." (AP Photo/Dave Martin, File)

When it was enacted, the Alabama law was supposed to be a model for what advocates of “enforcement-only” immigration policies call “self-deportation.” The idea is to make everyday life so difficult for the undocumented that they choose to leave of their own accord.

What Sarlin found was a disaster – a policy whose unintended consequences were far-reaching and extremely costly to the native-born as well as the immigrant population.

Sarlin writes:

“Illegal is illegal.” With that rallying cry, Alabama passed HB 56 in 2011, the harshest state immigration law in the country.

The lead sponsor of the bill boasted to state representatives that the law “attacks every aspect of an illegal alien’s life.” Among its key provisions: landlords were banned from renting homes to undocumented immigrants, schools had to check students’ legal status, and police were required to arrest suspected immigration violators. Even giving unauthorized immigrants a ride became a crime.

The vast scope of the law turned Alabama into an unprecedented test for the anti-immigration movement. If self-deportation didn’t work there, it’s hard to imagine where it could. Early reports suggested success: undocumented immigrants appeared to flee Alabama en masse. But two years later, HB 56 is in ruins. Its most far-reaching elements have proved unconstitutional, unworkable, or politically unsustainable. Elected officials, social workers, clergy, activists, and residents say an initial immigrant evacuation that roiled their communities ended long ago. Many who fled have returned to their old homes.

Now Alabama is back where it started, waiting for a solution from Washington that may never come.

Things started to go wrong just weeks after the law went into effect, when a German driver was detained after being pulled over in a routine traffic stop. Under the law, police were compelled to arrest the man, process him and hold him in jail until federal immigration officials could verify his legal status. But it turned out that the driver was an executive with Mercedes. As Sarlin notes, “The European car giant was one of several foreign auto companies in the state whose plants provide thousands of much-needed jobs.” Another incident with a Japanese Honda worker also made headlines.

That provision, which was central to the Alabama law, created major problems for law enforcement. Small towns with limited police forces simply didn’t have the resources to hold everyone they stopped who didn’t have proof of citizenship. Another provision of the law gave ordinary citizens standing to sue police departments they believed weren’t enforcing the law rigorously enough.

But those weren’t the only problems. Sarlin continues:

More unintended consequences emerged, this time from the religious community. Churches complained the law’s ban on providing aid to undocumented immigrants could criminalize everything from soup kitchens to Spanish-language Sunday services.

“They were going to change Bible school into border patrol,” Scott Douglas, executive director of Greater Birmingham Ministries, told MSNBC. “We had fewer Spanish-speaking congregants coming to our organization for help.”

At courthouses, simple tasks like renewing one’s vehicle tags now required proof of legal status, which generated long lines for citizens and non-citizens alike. Utilities were unsure whether they needed to cut off service to residents who couldn’t prove citizenship.

“People couldn’t get power or water, it was crazy,” Jeremy Love, an immigration attorney in Birmingham, recalled. “It got resolved, but it took pressure. I’d call managers and tell them it was a civil rights violation.”

County attorneys even questioned whether residents needed papers to use their public swimming pool – an uncomfortable prospect in a state still haunted by the legacy of segregation.

The law’s passage also led to a severe shortage in agricultural workers, as immigrants – both those who were authorized to work in the US and those who were not – fled Alabama in droves.

Just seven months after the law went into effect, lawmakers were busy watering down most of its key provisions. Or at least those provisions which hadn’t already been ruled unconstitutional by the courts.  Sarlin writes, “Alabama settled its various lawsuits in October 2013 and coughed up $350,000 to cover their opponents’ legal bills.” (Under the Civil Rights Act, when judges rule that a government infringed on its citizens’ rights, they can order it to cover the costs of bringing the suit.)

Ultimately, most of those who left Alabama in response to the passage of HB 56 have returned. It cost the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars and took a toll on the state’s image, but did little to address the issue of unauthorized immigration in the final analysis.

Alabama’s experience isn’t unique. In 2006, the town of Riverside, NJ, passed a strict immigration ordinance that sent thousands of immigrants out in search of more accommodating communities. But a year later, The New York Times reported:

With the departure of so many people, the local economy suffered. Hair salons, restaurants and corner shops that catered to the immigrants saw business plummet; several closed. Once-boarded-up storefronts downtown were boarded up again.

The town was also hit with serious legal bills defending against several lawsuits. According to the Times, “The legal battle forced the town to delay road paving projects, the purchase of a dump truck and repairs to town hall.” The law was repealed a little more than a year after it went into effect.

Hazelton, PA’s tough-on-immigrants ordinance was blocked before it went into effect, but the town still incurred over $2 million in legal fees.

And in Arizona, where the infamous SB 1070 was supposed to serve as a model for the theory of “self-deportation” – for the criminalization of the undocumented – lawmakers ended up having a very similar experience as their counterparts in Alabama.  It caused fear among immigrant communities, resulted in serious economic harm, cost the state a fortune to defend and was ultimately gutted by the courts.

There are two primary reasons why these enforcement-only efforts continue to end in disaster. First, we live in a relatively free country and don’t accept being asked to show our papers during routine transactions with the government or being arrested for not having them with us. There are constitutional limits on law enforcement that make these laws impractical in the real world.

Second, they come with a high economic cost because immigrants don’t just add to the supply of labor — they also increase the demand for labor by consuming goods and services within the economy. They’re participants in their local economies.

Read Benjy Sarlin’s entire report at MSNBC.

Joshua Holland was a senior digital producer for and now writes for The Nation. He’s the author of The Fifteen Biggest Lies About the Economy (and Everything Else the Right Doesn’t Want You to Know about Taxes, Jobs and Corporate America) (Wiley: 2010), and host of Politics and Reality Radio. Follow him on Twitter: @JoshuaHol.
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