Arizona recently asked the Supreme Court to rule on the constitutionality of SB1070, their state-passed anti-immigrant legislation. These state-passed immigration laws have been in the news a lot lately, not too long ago I was on Fox News debating Dan Stein, President of F.A.I.R. on Alabama's anti-immigrant legislation. What is fascinating about all of this is that no matter how pitched the arguments, whether it be between pundits, states and the federal government, at the end of the day once Congress passes comprehensive immigration legislation, none of these state-passed laws will mean anything.
States are well within their rights to challenge the federal government. The problem with a system of state immigration laws is that once the federal government passes a comprehensive overhaul (and this is most assuredly a question of when, not if), this plethora of state laws will become obsolete. A Republican or a Democratic president is only going to enforce the federal law. In the mean time states are only damaging themselves.
There are a couple of reasons for this. When these laws are passed, by and large states are besieged by costly lawsuits which ultimately prevent them from ever being enforced. It's not just the federal government which files these suits; religious groups, businesses, and law enforcement officials have all done so as well in order to stop these types of laws from ever being enforced.
The law enforcement component here is an important one, as it speaks to both the process and economic problems associated with these laws. First, anyone who is going to enforce these laws has to be trained, which means they will have to take time away from doing their usual jobs. Second, additional, outside staff will have to be paid to conduct the trainings, and the state and local government staff will have to be compensated with either their regular staff time salary or with additional overtime wages. In a state like Alabama which is already facing budget shortfalls, where will state and local governments find the funds to pay overtime for trainings, let alone any lawsuits that may occur? Many are quick to point out that under such circumstances the police department would most likely be protected from any budget cuts to offset these costs, but that does not mean that they are immune from having to pay the substantial amounts of money needed to litigate and/or settle the resulting lawsuits from organizations and individuals that have been impacted by the law.
There are, of course, broader economic problems with these laws. Dan, in a recent blog post, quite correctly noted that the Alabama law had resulted in undocumented immigrants leaving the state. If he had done a bit more research he would have noted that Hispanic citizens are also leaving the state, and the law is also creating fears of a labor shortage. Look at what is happening in Georgia: with the undocumented population leaving, crops are literally rotting on the vines.
The combination of both undocumented and citizens leaving Alabama is a huge problem. In Arizona, where all of this started, the total economic output attributable to Arizona's immigrant workers was $44 billion in 2004, which sustained roughly 400,000 full-time jobs. Furthermore, in Arizona over 35,000 businesses are Latino-owned and had sales and receipts of $4.3 billion and employed 39,363 people in 2002, the last year for which data is available. In this economy can any local government really afford to incite citizens and motivate them to relocate their business to another state?
Congressional Republicans and Democrats both publicly agree that the system is broken. Congress will eventually pass an overhaul of our immigration system. I should reiterate: This is not a question of if, but when, and once we have comprehensive immigration reform these state immigration laws will be preempted by federal law and rendered moot. Under the constitution, no president, neither Democratic nor Republican, can enforce any law other then the federal law.
Dan is right that state and local governments, as well as U.S. and foreign workers, will continue to suffer the longer the federal government delays in passing a comprehensive overhaul. So really, Congress should stop passing the buck onto states with this multitude of band-aid immigration laws and really get to the heart of the matter: fixing our broken immigration system. In a democracy, if local municipalities are so concerned about failed federal immigration policies, they have representation in the federal government -- and they should address these concerns to their representatives and senators -- and demand they come to the table and fix these laws.