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Immigration reform debate: Envisioning society

UAB student Meagan Griffin, right, and others march during a student immigration rally protesting the HB56 Alabama immigration law near campus in Birmingham, Ala., Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011.
UAB student Meagan Griffin, right, and others march during a student immigration rally protesting the HB56 Alabama immigration law near campus in Birmingham, Ala., Wednesday, Sept. 28, 2011.
AP Photo/The Birmingham News, Tamika Moore

One of the most perplexing questions in the nation's immigration reform debate has been that of who is responsible for it. What do states have the power to enact? Which powers and responsibilities are reserved to the federal government? And what can feds order states to do — or not to do?

In a 115-page attempt to answer this question, one federal judge has managed to clear up very little. Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn weighed in on a controversial Alabama law passed in June, blocking a few provisions but keeping many others — some of which have been struck down by other courts in other states, including a requirement for police to verify immigration status during routine traffic stops.

But at it's core, the Alabama law, like other enforcement-only laws, is problematic not just for issues of federalism, but for the unethical, unfeeling vision of society it advances — something that should concern citizens not just in Alabama but across the country.

For example, the Alabama law states that all contracts entered into by undocumented immigrants are void. Imagine the license — incentive, even — this grants for unethical persons to take massive advantage of this class of people. Along the same lines, transactions between undocumented immigrants and state agencies are forbidden, something that has already resulted in at least one household losing water and sewer service.

The law also requires schools to track the immigration status of children when they enroll, something education officials are not keen on doing and that is likely to deter enrollment, worsening problems of delinquency and other social ills.

Alabama lawmakers are also damaging their state's economy. They claimed that requiring employers to check immigration status preserves jobs for legal residents. But legal workers have refused to fill the agricultural and manual labor jobs usually held by undocumented immigrants, even though many pay more than minimum wage. Millions of dollars worth of produce now lies rotting in Alabama fields for lack of workers to harvest it, and others worry that the state will be slow to rebuild from this year's tornado damage as it suffers from a lack of construction workers. This should be a lesson to other states eager to implement similar policies.

If fully implemented, this misguided law would turn farmers, sheriffs, businessmen, educators and other citizens into immigration agents — often against their will. And in the case of police, it requires them to judge whether there is "reasonable suspicion" someone may be undocumented. What exactly entails "reasonable suspicion?" Skin color? Accent?

Such attitudes discriminate even against legal workers and raise significant questions about whether a group of one heritage is being targeted for mass expulsion or mistreatment — something that should give all citizens pause as they consider the history of minority groups in this country.

Perhaps most importantly, enforcement-only laws don't live up to the moral standard of how individuals and governments should treat people. They push people into the shadows instead of bringing them into the light to be dealt with in constructive and compassionate ways.

The best solution is for the federal government to fix the immigration system by enforcing border controls and allowing more workers to come to the United States legally. This country is desperate for a better system, and it is to our national shame that Congress and the president have proved unable to govern on divisive issues like immigration.

This administration has taken a few small steps toward addressing the issue, but has done nothing to advance the sort of comprehensive reform required. As we continue to tolerate increasingly draconian laws like the one in Alabama, they will promote conflict, decrease wealth and allow for the worst kind of exploitation of immigrant populations, making our society worse for legal and illegal residents alike.