PUNITIVE IMMIGRATION LAWS SEEM LIKELY TO EXPAND

Cynthia Tucker

The U.S. Supreme Court seems inclined to back at least a portion of Arizona's xenophobic immigration law, which countenances racial profiling. Even Justice Sonia Sotomayor, a member of the court's liberal wing and its first Hispanic, signaled to the Obama administration, which has opposed the law, that its arguments were "not selling very well," according to The New York Times.

That's too bad. Several states that rushed to copy Arizona's terrible example, including Georgia and Alabama, need to be rescued from their bigotry. Actually, the entire nation needs a respite from the fevered anti-immigrant sentiment that has gripped some of its regions.

According to a new report from the Pew Research Center, the tide of immigration from Mexico that changed the face of many U.S. cities and towns over the last 15 or so years has come to a halt -- or perhaps reversed. Pew says that several factors, including the Great Recession and increased border enforcement, significantly decreased the flow of undocumented workers over the southern border.

But the mean-spirited and frequently self-defeating statutes that have flowed from GOP-dominated assemblies show no signs of abating. Legislatures keep voting to keep illegal immigrants out of college, out of decent housing and away from the economic mainstream.

In 2010, Arizona leapt to the front lines of the nation's immigration wars with a harsh statute that, among other things, requires local police agents to check the immigration status of anyone they "suspect" is in the country illegally. That begs for the sort of profiling by surname and skin color that turns the U.S. Constitution on its head.

(Oddly, the Obama administration decided not to tackle the law on that basis, choosing instead to portray Arizona as infringing on federal turf by enacting its own immigration law. Should the high court uphold the law, opponents may still challenge it on the grounds of racial unfairness.)

But the protests, boycotts and widespread condemnation from immigration advocates that greeted Arizona's actions did nothing to deter the nativists in other states who wanted to take the same approach. Actually, the controversy seemed to cheer some ultraconservatives, who were itching to prove they wouldn't back down.

I can only assume that backward bravado helped to carry the day in Georgia and Alabama, both of which passed similar laws last year. Indeed, Alabama is widely believed to now have the nation's harshest law aimed at illegal immigrants.

If Arizona at least had the excuse of having a significant population of undocumented workers, my home state, Alabama, had no such excuse. Its 120,000 or so illegal immigrants -- an estimate from the Pew Research Center -- is less than 3 percent of the total state population.

Because of the folly of its elected officials, Alabama has suffered the embarrassment of national headlines detailing the arrest of a Mercedes-Benz executive last year for lack of appropriate documents. The state had been proud of its savvy at attracting foreign car manufacturers -- a triumph now sullied by a dumb law.

Georgia has also suffered for its foolishness. Last year, the state's farmers lost nearly $80 million in unpicked crops because of a severe labor shortage, according to Charles Hall, director of the Georgia Fruit and Vegetable Growers Association.

If economic interests haven't persuaded local legislators to dump these laws, there seems little hope of rescinding them anytime soon. Nor does there seem much hope that a deeply polarized Congress will step in to offer a path to legal status to the nation's millions of undocumented workers.

Sen. Marco Rubio, R-Fla., frequently mentioned as a vice presidential prospect, recently said that he would offer immigration reform legislation -- a conservative counter to Democratic bills. But House Speaker John Boehner said last week that even Rubio's proposal is unlikely to pass.

Many critics of illegal immigration still indulge the fantasy that more tough sanctions will cause millions of illegal immigrants to "self-deport," leaving the country closer to an ethnic balance with which they are comfortable. So if the Supreme Court won't strike down these hateful laws, they're likely to keep cropping up.

(Cynthia Tucker, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a visiting professor at the University of Georgia. She can be reached at cynthia@cynthiatucker.com.)


COPYRIGHT 2012 CYNTHIA TUCKER

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