02/07/2012 12:43 pm ET | Updated Apr 08, 2012

Appealing to the Right on Anti-Immigration May Not Produce Victory

Republican front runner Mitt Romney has called for a harsh, punitive policy on immigration and an end to bilingual ballots -- a move that could disenfranchise millions of voters. Some speculate that appealing to the far right on immigration issues will be a winning formula in 2012. But like the proposed ban on bilingual ballots, fueling state anti-immigrant laws could cost GOP candidates Latino and other immigrant votes. Surprisingly, while anti-immigrant omnibus bills passed in five states last year, they were defeated in 25.

What was behind the ability to defeat those laws is examined in a new report released today by Advancement Project State Battles Over Immigration. State legislatures last year zealously pursued legislation to criminalize immigrants and force their departure. States broke a record for the number of immigration bills introduced in January 2011 with more than 600 filed in all 50 states, most of which were anti-immigrant bills. The pace continued throughout the year to set an all-time record of over 1600 immigration bills introduced in 2011. All but eight states last year enacted some form of anti-immigrant legislation.

The new legislative tactic is omnibus bills that roll a number of related proposals into one proposed law. The spike in these uber-laws resulted in 53 anti-immigrant omnibus bills being introduced last year in 30 states. Referred to as "Arizona copy-cat legislation," after SB 1070 passed in Arizona in 2010, five states -- Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah --enacted anti-immigrant omnibus bills last year. But what is unexpected is that they were defeated in 25. What the report finds is that the key to success was building coalitions across issues like poverty, and across racial and ethnic lines.

We expect more of these omnibus bills this year, the harshest examples of a new state strategy on immigration of "attrition through enforcement," or more colloquially "self-deportation" as one presidential candidate has already urged.

Alabama's anti-immigrant law, HB 56, went the farthest. In addition to making it a state crime to be undocumented and requiring local police to check the papers of anyone they suspect of being undocumented, Alabama's law also mandates that public schools check the legal status of their students, voids any contract (including a lease) made with an undocumented immigrant, and makes it a felony for undocumented immigrants to contract with a government entity (including for utilities such as water).

Alabama's law has in fact resulted in self-deportation, and at a significant cost to the state. The agricultural industry has taken a hit, because migrant workers have fled the state and farmers cannot find U.S. workers to replace them. One farmer from Smith Farms estimates that he has lost $300,000 due to the labor storage in the wake of HB 56. The law has negatively affected the state's business reputation, with embarrassing incidents of executives being arrested or ticketed because of the new law. Schools have seen an abnormally high rate of absences amongst Latino/a students. All this has compelled Alabama lawmakers to consider making changes (but unfortunately not repealing) its anti-immigrant law.

But anti-immigrant omnibus and other enforcement bills are back in state legislatures this year, particularly in Midwestern and Southeastern states. Some of the "watch states" identified in State Battles Over Immigration already have omnibus anti-immigrant bills at play: Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Tennessee. Virginia's state law does not permit omnibus bills, but given the onslaught of anti-immigrant piecemeal legislation in 2011 and those already introduced in the 2012 session, Virginia also ranks high among the list of watch states.

There are several reasons for the continuation of state anti-immigrant proposals in 2012. First, in the context of a presidential election year, there is almost no chance that federal immigration reform will see the light of day. States will likely be the primary, if not exclusive, site for immigrant rights fights. Moreover, with presidential candidates brazenly using racist rhetoric, it is not hard to see how election politics will contribute to support state anti-immigrant legislation.

Of the 2011 omnibus laws, Alabama is a clear case study -- even to the legislators who passed the law -- of the harm anti-immigrant measures does to the state as a whole. We can only hope that the example of the "cut off your nose to spite your face" impact of Alabama's reckless measure will slow anti-immigrant zealots.

Some on the right are fervently advancing a winning electoral strategy that appeals to xenophobia and anti-immigrant bigotry, but their formula may not produce the victory they envision. As the growing influence of Occupy Wall Street and the multi-racial coalitions that defeated anti-immigrant legislation demonstrate, that appeal could energize those voters who embrace a view of America that espouses democracy and fairness instead.