Bad Ideas Running Aground

Alan Jenkins

Over the last year, right-wing politicians introduced a slew of bills in Congress and multiple states that purported to address the problem of illegal immigration. The proposals ranged from replicating Arizona’s controversial SB 1070—which requires police to question people who “look” undocumented—to altering or reinterpreting the 14th Amendment to deny citizenship to the children of immigrants born in America. Today, however, the majority of those proposals are running aground, and for good reason. People around the country are increasingly rejecting them as unworkable, unaffordable, and inconsistent with our nation’s core values.

Americans across the political spectrum are rightly frustrated with our broken immigration system, and desperate for solutions. The proponents of these bills hope to take advantage of that frustration, pushing vindictive approaches that exploit our legitimate concerns and feed our prejudices. But they are losing traction as voters and lawmakers take a closer look.

Colorado, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Wyoming have all rejected extreme proposals targeting immigrants. And Montana, South Dakota, and others defeated proposals seeking to alter constitutional citizenship principles.

Fiscal analysis of proposed SB 1070 copycats in Utah and Kentucky found that they would cost taxpayers $11 million and $89 million, respectively, at a time when cities and states are facing record deficits. Police chiefs and sheriffs in Texas, Wyoming, and other jurisdictions spoke out against the laws, explaining that they would erode trust in law enforcement and, therefore, hurt public safety.

Business leaders have also opposed the provisions on the ground that they would disrupt commerce and repel tourists, sports teams, performers, and other groups whose members include or support immigrants—and who are crucial to jobs and business revenue. And legal experts explained that attempts to undermine the 14th Amendment or to supplant the federal government’s enforcement role were unconstitutional, and would spawn expensive litigation.

As these facts sank in, many who were initially attracted to these proposals began to have second thoughts, recognizing that they were not real solutions. And many more concluded that, in addition to being unworkable, the proposals ran counter to our ideals as Americans. Tampering with our constitutional freedoms, they rightly concluded, is no way to deal with our immigration problems. Nor is encouraging racial profiling by singling out people based on what they look like, instead of based on evidence of wrongdoing.

Civil rights groups, for example, formed a coalition, Americans for Constitutional Citizenship, to defend the integrity of the 14th Amendment. They declared that undermining it would create a two-tiered class of citizens and would be “decidedly un-American.” At the other end of the ideological spectrum, Conservatives for Comprehensive Immigration Reform opposed the constitutional changes as “a misguided attack on immigrants and a distraction from real congressional action on a practical and lasting solution to our broken immigration system.”

These groups agree that the real solution to our broken immigration system is commonsense federal immigration reform that includes smarter border controls and a process under which undocumented immigrants register, pay all taxes, begin learning English and start down a legal path toward citizenship. In the absence of federal action, however, realistic solutions are emerging at the local level to address the legitimate problems that some communities are experiencing.

Progressive legislators around the country are promoting policies like wage enforcement and workers’ rights protections, community policing, English and civics classes, and support for immigrant small business creation to foster jobs and increase tax revenues. Immigrant groups like the Border Network for Human Rights are working with law enforcement to develop public safety and border policies that protect all communities from harm while upholding human rights standards.

Unfortunately, cooler heads are not prevailing everywhere. Some extreme bills are still alive and kicking in several states, particularly in the South. Going forward, it will be important for those states’ voters and elected leaders to take a hard look at the facts, to contemplate the real solutions that are out there, and to consider the kind of nation that America aspires to be.

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