Farmers Branch Folly: Local Immigration Laws Do More Harm than Good

11/28/2006 08:42 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

I recently returned from a week in Texas, where people were in an uproar about the vote by the city council in Farmers Branch, a Dallas suburb, in favor of tough-on-illegal-immigration ordinances that, among other things, would impose a fine on landlords who rent to illegal immigrants.

In the absence of badly-needed action to reform immigration laws to make it easier for hard-working immigrants to come here legally so that it is feasible to enforce workplace labor and immigration violations, state and now local governments have been approving increasingly draconian laws to punish illegal immigrants and those who rent to or hire them.

Farmers Branch has now acquired the dubious distinction of becoming the first Texas municipality to jump on the bandwagon of towns approving measures intended to crack down on illegal immigration locally.

Having lived in Texas from junior high school through college, I'd been relieved -until now, that is--that the most strident anti-immigrant voices and proposals were coming from elsewhere in the United States. Texas' relatively sane approach to its foreign-born population is especially impressive given that it has the third-largest population of immigrants in the country (2.9 million and counting, behind California and New York) and the seventh-largest in terms of percentage (13.9 percent) of foreign-born. It also has the country's highest percentage (18.4 percent) of foreign born over the age of five who do not speak English at home or even at all.

While it would be far from accurate to say that the relationship between all Texans and the state's mostly Latino immigrants is perfect, it also is to the state's credit that anti-immigrant rhetoric has been more intense -and more likely to translate into counterproductive policies--in places like New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Colorado and Oregon. The roster of localities that passed laws that Farmers Branch is copying includes two Pennsylvania towns (Hazleton and Altoona), two in North Carolina (Landis and Mint Hill), two in California (San Bernardino and Escondido); one in Massachusetts (Sandwich); and two in the Midwest (Arcadia, WI and Carpentersville IL).

It's too soon to tell the results of these laws -many of which already have been challenged in court. But initial indications are that, even before going into effect, they are doing more harm than good.

The CBS news magazine "60 Minutes" recently ran a story on Hazleton, Pennsylvania , the first town to pass a set of local ordinances cracking down on illegal immigration -specifically, to require everyone in town to present proof of citizenship or legal residence in the United States in order to rent an apartment, and to fine landlords who rent to and businesses who employ undocumented immigrants. Though a court challenge succeeded in delaying the laws' enforcement, many immigrants already are leaving town, leaving shortages of workers in construction and other industries that rely heavily on immigrant labor. Businesses catering to immigrants are closing. Should the laws ever go into effect, anyone who rents property will have to go through additional red tape -something neither renters nor landlords will like.

The damage done by such laws -even before they go into effect--is so clear that it's tempting to argue that the best response is simply to let the laws stand. Anyone with a grain of sense ought to be able to see that they will only hurt U.S. citizens and lawfully present immigrants as well as those who lack the legal authorization to live and work in this country.

What if we were to choose a few towns and give them a year with these noxious ordinances in place - on the condition that a few key quality of life and prosperity indicators would be tracked and publicized so that at the end of the year they could vote on how much they really liked their accomplishments? The problem is that when it comes to immigration, Americans are blind to facts, reason, and their own self-interest. They may not even see that all they've accomplished is to cut off their nose to spite their face. It's all too likely that the desire for scapegoats would be stronger than the desire for their own well-being.

The New York Times editorial page, which lately has been uncharacteristically feisty in defense of reason on immigration, recently spoke out against similarly small-minded policies in Mamaroneck, NY, and Freehold, NJ, to harass day laborers. "The righteous ardor of the Mamaronecks and Freeholds of this world has risen in direct proportion to the federal paralysis on immigration," the Times' editorialists correctly wrote. "It underscores the urgent need for Congress and the president to step up to the perennially difficult task of determining who may cross our borders and how, and of creating a fair and viable path out of the shadows for deserving immigrants who are living and working here illegally."

Without a doubt, the federal government's failure to reform our immigration laws bears much of the blame for the counter-productive actions of small towns across the states. Let's hope that if any good comes of the Farmers Branches of the world, it will be to add to momentum for reform.

Unfortunately, we cannot count on reason from the federal government either. In 1918, the lynching of a German immigrant in Collinsville, Illinois, for supposed "disloyalty" (more likely, for general obnoxiousness, including having accused Americans of failure to display Old Glory sufficiently prominently) pushed a sluggish Congress into action. The law that ultimately passed, however, was not one to prevent lynchings and irrational behavior, but rather to crack down on foreign-born suspicious characters and to muzzle the freedom of speech in general. The logic that turned a lynching at the hands of U.S citizens into justification for the passage of 1918 Sedition Act is, sadly, the same warped reasoning that this year got us Congressional approval of a border fence instead of a set of immigration laws that have something to do with reality.