Why Alabama's Immigration Bill Is Bad for Citizens

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The state is trying to embed immigration enforcement into everyday life, thereby making government even more omnipresent

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The immigration law passed in Alabama last week is meant to make it far more difficult for illegal immigrants to live in the state. Should it take effect on September 1, they'll find it harder to find jobs, rent apartments, obtain medical care, enroll in college, interact with police, or even to get a ride across town. That's as it should be, advocates insist: they're in the country illegally, and are likely to leave if undocumented life is sufficiently arduous. Opponents of the bill believe that giving those here unlawfully a "path to citizenship" would be better solution to the problem.

Ignored is the impact this legislation is likely to have on American citizens and legal immigrants in Alabama. Are restrictionists so keen on attrition that they're willing to impose significant burdens on their fellow citizens to get there? As Rep. Mickey Hammon, the sponsor of the bill, told his colleagues, his handy work "attacks every aspect of an illegal alien's life" and "is designed to make it difficult for them to live here so they will deport themselves."

But insofar as "their" lives overlap significantly with "ours," lawful residents also are affected.

"Alabama's new law will require schools, businesses, and landlords to verify the immigration status of their students, employees and tenants, respectively," Caroline May writes. "Police will be allowed to detain people on suspicion of being in the country illegally and it will be unlawful to give a ride to an undocumented immigrant."

Yes, a simple ride in a car could be verboten.

These various burdens aren't created equal. It is eminently reasonable for law enforcement to check the legal status of anyone it legitimately arrests and incarcerates. It isn't as if doing so imposes an undue burden on criminals found to be here legally. In business, most employers already have a process for new hires. All are required to employ folks eligible to work here. And E-Verify isn't particularly burdensome. It even helps some workers to efficiently prove their status.

But it makes little sense to force educators to collect data on undocumented students, especially since kids here illegally won't be kicked out. Surely administrators, principals and teachers have more pressing tasks than collecting immigration statistics. A prohibition against renting to illegal immigrants also inserts the state into the daily life of Alabamans. It's a role that should be resisted. Do we really want the act of renting out a room for a month -- or subletting an apartment -- to turn into a formal process with more red tape and barriers? Isn't moving painful enough? Plus some landlords, fearing legal sanction, are inevitably going to error on the side of caution by turning down all prospective tenants who are Hispanic. And maybe get fined for that, too, if caught.

Hispanic American citizens are likely to bear the brunt of these immigration laws. How often are white Alabamans going to be forced to prove their citizenship? Nor does it end there. Think of a man, here on a work visa, who is dating an illegal immigrant woman -- that is to say, someone whose parents brought her to this country when she was 7, and has lived in the United States for the last 20 years. Under this law, it is illegal for that man to drive his girlfriend to a doctor's appointment!

There are countless real world examples as sympathetic. This is especially so in immigrant enclaves, where the documented and undocumented often live side by side in the same subculture. Even beyond those enclaves, the tens of thousands of illegal immigrants now living in Alabama have friends, colleagues, and even family members of various races who are here legally. It isn't a crime to knowingly transport someone who smokes marijuana, or cheats on his taxes, or regularly drives drunk, or pirates Hollywood movies. Does it really make sense to criminalize the mere transport of an illegal immigrant? Or ponder this hypothetical. As a Birmingham church group prepares to depart on its annual bible retreat, should it exclude from the communal van the longtime parishioner who is known to her co-religionists to be in the country illegally? These are awful choices to force on people. When legislation results in law-abiding citizens having pangs of conscience, odds are the law is a bad one.  

The Alabama immigration law is an attempt to embed immigration enforcement into every aspect of daily life. The inevitable result: a state bureaucracy that is suddenly omnipresent in daily life!

That's a huge price to pay for reducing the population of illegal immigrants. Workplace enforcement makes sense. Official paperwork is already involved in hiring and firing generally, for better or worse, and E-Verify is an improvement on a cumbersome status quo. And it's common sense to check the immigration status of prison inmates before releasing them. But turning schools, hospitals, apartments for rent, and even informal human relationships into de facto opportunities for immigration enforcement is imprudent. It gives the state too large a role in the daily lives of folks who've broken no laws. And if efforts to rid America of illegal drugs are any indication, any failure of this new immigration regime will result in additional intrusions. Isn't enforcement in workplaces and prisons enough? The government plays too large a role in daily life already.


Image credit: Reuters
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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