WASHINGTON-- After a disappointing verdict that left some of the worst provisions of Alabama's immigration law HB 56 in effect, the federal government is finding itself ever more deeply entangled in a complicated legal thicket as it tries to figure out how to keep the list of states with their own immigration laws from continuing to grow. The clash of powers may advance all the way to the Supreme Court--exactly where the champions of these restrictive laws have been trying to get for the past two years.
In fact, this past Friday the Department of Justice appealed the decision of Alabama district federal judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn. A few days earlier, at an online discussion with Spanish media, President Barack Obama reiterated that the United States needs to avoid having a patchwork of 50 immigration laws--and therefore needs to pass comprehensive immigration reform.
But the debate over the wave of state immigration laws in the absence of such reform has turned into another blame game--while civil rights, our economy, and our moral fiber pay the price.
The federal government argues (correctly) that enforcing immigration laws is a federal matter. For their part, those promoting and defending these state laws say they're acting because the federal government has failed in its responsibility to enforce the laws, and they see a need to fill the gap
However, as we saw with Arizona's SB 1070--and even more with Alabama's HB 56, which is "SB 1070 on steroids"--these state laws go much further than mere frustration with the federal government. Anyone can see that these laws are discriminatory and unconstitutional, not to mention racially motivated.
To try to combat undocumented immigration by trampling on constitutional rights and encouraging racial profiling, as these laws do, is shameful. Such tactics can affect everyone--including citizens and legal residents.
The tears and anxiety among U.S.-born Hispanic students in Alabama, afraid that their undocumented parents would be identified, detained, and deported, are absolutely unjustifiable. Univision News interviewed a young boy, Damián, who was scared because his mother was undocumented. He summed it up clearly:
"I wanted to be a biologist, but now that dream is meaningless. I'm an American citizen, but what use is that? My family is here, but I can't be here without her, and they're going to take her away from me."
This is what the federal judge in Alabama green-lighted: one of the worst provisions in the law requires elementary and secondary schools to collect information about the immigration status of all new students and their parents. But even students who have already enrolled are now considering not coming to school anymore, out of fear of becoming the victims of discrimination or because their parents are undocumented. This provision violates the right of all children to get an education independent of their immigration status.
The law also permits police to ask for documents from anyone they suspect is undocumented, and invalidates contracts with undocumented immigrants--to keep them, for example, from finding housing.
Yes, it's true that the federal government clearly has the power to make immigration laws. But it's also true that Congress has failed in its responsibility to pass an immigration reform bill that would keep the Alabama nightmare from spreading like fire through dry grass. And so the Department of Justice has been reduced to putting out fires here and there.
It's also true that the federal government--exactly because it hasn't reformed federal immigration laws--has strengthened its relationships with state governments to fulfill immigration duties, with programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities. This has emboldened the politicians who use state laws like HB56 to push their anti-immigrant agenda.
Alabama has a long history of shameful conduct in the nation's civil rights struggles. Heedless of its own history, it is tragically repeating it.
Maribel Hastings is a senior advisor at America's Voice