The immigration debate took a new turn earlier this week as President Obama, in a meeting with police chiefs, prominent mayors and business, labor and faith leaders, pledged to give immigration the same attention he gave health care and the budget. But the frontline of immigration policy no longer seems to be Washington, D.C. As states across the country look to enact their own immigration laws, many of them modeled after the legislation passed in Arizona last year – the debate has shifted to state capitols.
One year ago, Arizona passed SB 1070, a hardline anti-immigration law that made it a state crime to be an undocumented immigrant. The controversial law, the first of its kind, split the country over whether states and municipalities should take it upon themselves to enforce federal law. While the law is being challenged in federal court, similar pieces of legislation have been introduced in other states.
The Georgia Legislature recently became the second state legislature in the country to pass an Arizona-style bill, which is now on its way to the desk of Republican Gov. Nathan Deal.
According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, as of March 31, state lawmakers had introduced 52 immigration-related omnibus bills in 30 states, bills that address everything from the enforcement of immigration laws to employment verification, and the denial of public benefits to the undocumented. Many of them contain provisions similar those contained in Arizona’s law.
But immigrant rights organizers from various states said there are things that organizers can do to fight back.
Catherine Han Montoya, field manager at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, emphasized the importance of rallying different ethnic communities to the cause against anti-immigration laws. In Mississippi, the African-American community was “instrumental” in defeating an Arizona-copycat bill. Thanks to a coalition between immigrant-rights groups, the Black Caucus and lower-income communities, an equivalent piece of legislation is currently being held up in the South Carolina House.
“We can no longer talk about immigrant rights as solely an immigrant rights issue,” Montoya said. “We must build strategic alliances, not only for the benefit of the immigrant rights movement, but for the benefit of all communities of color across the country.”
Her comments were echoed by Darcy Tromanhauser, program director for immigration integration at Nebraska Appleseed, and Patricia Fennell, president and CEO of the Latino Community Development Agency in Oklahoma City, who both reported that the roles played by the NAACP as well as Asian and Native American allies have been crucial in Nebraska and Oklahoma.
Subhash Kateel, community organizer with the Florida Immigrant Coalition, pointed out that members of the Latino Republican Caucus in Florida only began to take a stand against anti-immigration bills after they took notice of the mobilization among immigrant-rights advocates.
As new census data showed that the Latino population has increased by at least 80 percent in 18 states and more than doubled in nine of them, the next elections may be determined by the solidity of the ties between ethnic communities. Angela Kelley, vice president for immigration policy and advocacy at the Center for American Progress, stressed that this was not a partisan issue. “Both Democrats and Republicans need to be afraid of angering the community and taking it for granted,” she said.
The panelists also warned against potentially disastrous economic consequences of passing Arizona-copycat laws across the country, and suggested that immigrant rights advocates may have found an unlikely ally in the business community. According to Fennell, more than 25,000 Latinos left Tulsa in 2007, after the Oklahoma state legislature passed a bill that made it illegal to provide transportation to suspected undocumented immigrants. The impact on business was such that the U.S., Oklahoma City and Tulsa chambers of commerce joined forces in 2008 to sue the state over the law.
A study conducted by the Immigration Policy Center and the Center for American Progress found that mass deportation of undocumented immigrants in Arizona could result in the loss of 581,000 jobs and shrink the state’s economy by $49 billion dollars. Conversely, granting them legal status would add 261,000 jobs and increase tax revenue by $1.7 billion.
Boycotts have also proven effective. In the six months after Arizona passed the legislation, local businesses lost $141 million in cancelled conventions and conferences, prompting 60 CEOs and business leaders to send a letter to State Senate Leader Russell Pearce, who introduced SB 1070, asking him to abandon the law.
In Florida, prospective tourists and investors have been urged to sign the I Won’t Visit Florida petition, a promise to spend money “someplace else” as long as immigrants are treated as criminals in the state.
“If it wasn’t for Latino and Caribbean immigrant investment, labor and consumption, Florida would be in a full-fledged recession,” said Kateel. “You can’t say that this bill is going to be good for the economy, because no one will believe you.”
This argument should give hope to immigrant-rights advocates as they turn up the pressure on politicians to vote against such bills.
“You can have a very sober economic conversation that takes the politics out of it,” Kelley said. “Given how fragile our economy remains, that may be a smart place for all of us to go.”
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