The spread of toxic immigration laws

The spread of toxic immigration laws

- in Must Reads

(Cross-posted from the website of the N.C. Council of Churches)

Over the past several months I’ve been shaking my head at my computer screen, reading headlines from across the Southeast about new state immigration laws. This crop of new laws, enacted in Alabama, Georgia and South Carolina, and modeled after Arizona’s now infamous immigration law, threatens the safety and well-being of communities across the South. And North Carolina legislators are seriously considering whether to follow in these draconian footsteps.

I can certainly understand that the nation is clearly frustrated with Congress’ dysfunction, partisan gridlock, and seeming inability to deal rationally with the many major policy issues facing our communities. I am too. And immigration reform is now seen as one of the most challenging political battlegrounds, thanks in large part to partisan wrangling. Now a handful of conservative legislators are using fear and misinformation to position immigration as a political wedge issue, cashing in on Washington’s inaction and the down economy to pursue a fierce anti-immigrant agenda. Even though prominent Republican leaders have expressed public reservations about using a strategy so clearly designed to alienate Latinos and other large voting blocks, and even though all evidence from Arizona suggests that this approach is harmful economically, these anti-immigration hard-liners are undeterred.

Farm labor shortages have made headlines all summer, as a largely undocumented workforce has been criminalized. While politicians claimed that these immigration laws would create jobs (a claim made right now by almost all politicians about almost all bills), new jobs have failed to materialize. Instead, in these economies driven by agriculture, crops have rotted in the fields, and family farmers have been devastated by losses.

One of the most controversial sections of Alabama’s new state law is the requirement that children show proof of citizenship when registering to attend public school. Proponents of the new law have said that no child will be turned away from school, but that they do want to track state spending on undocumented students. In reality, this “papers, please” approach is creating a climate of fear that is keeping children out of school.

According to Frank Sharry, Executive Director of America’s Voice: “The restrictionist vision for immigration ‘reform’ is playing out in Alabama today, with all of its ugly effects. Crops are rotting in the fields, children are afraid to go to school, and the state is reviving memories of its awful civil rights history. All that, and the Alabama law won’t fix one thing that’s broken about our immigration system. Is this really the type of country we want to be?”

Every day more and more Americans are realizing the devastating effects of this approach in their own communities. Faith communities in particular have helped people in the pews see how we cannot afford to scapegoat immigrants if we want to move forward as a nation.

In Alabama, for example, some denominations sued the state because they believed the new law would undermine their ability to be faithful to the Gospel.

Here’s an excerpt from a recent NPR story:

At First United Methodist Church in downtown Birmingham, clergy from around the city take turns leading a prayer service called in response to the new immigration law. Episcopal priest Herman Afanador, Baptist pastor Amanda Duckworth, and Methodist minister Melissa Self Patrick are part of a growing chorus of critics who say the Alabama law goes too far, criminalizing all kinds of contact with undocumented residents. It’s illegal, for example, to knowingly enter into a contract with, to rent to, to harbor or to transport illegal immigrants.

The state’s United Methodist, Episcopal and Roman Catholic churches have sued, arguing it violates their religious freedom.

Patrick, who runs the inner-city ministry of the United Methodist church in Birmingham, says being a good Samaritan could now be illegal. “This new legislation goes against the tenets of our Christian faith — to welcome the stranger, to offer hospitality to anyone,” she says.

Some here see the issue through the lens of Alabama’s history, including Lawton Higgs, 71, a retired Methodist minister. “And I’m a recovering racist, transformed by the great fruits of the civil rights movement in this city,” he says. Higgs says he and his church were on the wrong side of that moral battle in the ’60s, so he is pleased to see the churches entering the fray now. He likens Alabama’s immigration law to Jim Crow — legislating second-class status for illegal immigrants. “This is an expression of the same — what was called the white Southern redeemers,” he says.

Read the full story here.

These kinds of public faith witnesses against the new law have received a lot of media coverage, as people of faith have held vigils, marched in Birmingham, and filed lawsuits. While a federal judge recently allowed parts of the Alabama law to stand, congregations are making the connections between their faith and how their immigrant neighbors are treated. More than 150 clergy signed a letter opposing the law that was authored by Rev. R. G. Lyons, a United Methodist minister at Birmingham’s Community Church Without Walls. Clergy and laypeople alike are getting involved in new ways, and it’s making a difference.

Bringing it Home

Will North Carolina be next in line for passing regressive, anti-immigrant legislation? We’ve already seen an Arizona-style bill introduced last session, and there is strong interest from local anti-immigrant organizations in getting one passed.  Supporters of mass-deportation are well-aware and seem quite comfortable with the range of negative effects wrought by such measures. As we’re seeing over the last month, these negative effects extend far beyond the targeted undocumented immigrant population and reach young school children, business owners and farmers, state taxpayers, legal immigrants, and the state’s reputation as a force in today’s global economy. Even many conservative legislators realize that this is the wrong approach for North Carolina.

We need serious, responsible solutions from politicians, not more-of-the-same scapegoating and fear-mongering. It’s time for state leaders to reject the politics of fear and to embrace the policies of immigrant integration. It’s time for Washington to enact the DREAM Act and real comprehensive immigration reform that brings people out of the shadows. And it’s time for faith communities of every tradition and denomination to stand with our immigrant sisters and brothers to say “Not in our state. Not in our name.”

Click here to learn how you can get involved with the NC Religious Coalition for Justice for Immigrants.

–Chris Liu-Beers, Program Associate