For years, we’ve been told how much better our lives would be after we truly cracked down on illegal immigration. There’d be more jobs for Americans, fewer classrooms bogged down by non-English speakers. Our emergency rooms would be free of burden. We wouldn’t have to punch “1” so much for calls in English. A better life, if only we could send the illegals home.
Now we know.
Here’s what you get when you get the Mexicans to leave: Rotting crops, businesses closing, concerned police, children missing school. And, of course, families torn apart.
But at least the lawbreakers are leaving, right?
This is what we’re seeing in Alabama, which this month began enforcing the most rigorous immigration law in the country. There, it’s illegal to knowingly employ, assist or house an undocumented immigrant. The law also compels schools and police to verify the status of immigrants – or at least those who look like one – although a circuit court temporarily blocked the schools provision late Friday.
Georgia and Arizona lawmakers have passed similar laws, and North Carolina is prepping the soil by forming a new legislative committee on immigration issues. Its goal: make North Carolina “unwelcome for any illegal alien,” said Republican Rep. Frank Iler, a co-chair, to a Wilmington reporter last week.
Now we have a preview of what comes next. In Alabama, the new law has jarred cities and rattled communities where Latinos long ago put down roots while tending crops and working in poultry plants. Church pews are emptying. Businesses are scrambling to replace workers. Police are fretting about when and when not to check papers. Superintendents are pleading with Latino parents, assuring them they won’t be grabbed for deportation when they pick up their child. It’s not working – parents have pulled the kids, many of them U.S. citizens, and kept them home.
Above all, immigrants are leaving – some to other states that might be more welcoming, some back to their homeland.
To which many of you out there would say: Great.
Immigration opponents have long declared – with some real justification – that illegal immigrants strain our emergency rooms, slow our classrooms with ESL students, and cost our cities and towns millions in services. And once they’re gone, the thinking goes, more jobs will be available for unemployed American workers.
Except: In Alabama and Georgia, farmers say the law is killing them. The farmers, most of whom live in rural, conservative counties, say the U.S. Guest Worker program is woefully inadequate in supplying workers to tend their fields. What about all those locals needing jobs? “You’re out there in the sun and the rain,” an Alabama farmers representative told the Washington Post. “It’s just not attractive to Americans.”
So crops are going unharvested, with more than half rotting in some places. Farms are floundering, and prices surely will rise. Another casualty: Businesses that serve immigrant communities are suffering and closing their doors. That’s money that helps rev our economies – and jobs going away when we need them most.
It’s why the send-them-home solution has long been antiquated. Our cities and towns have settled into commerce that includes immigrant communities, their labor force, and their dollars. A better solution includes a combination of tightening borders, penalizing illegal immigrants with back taxes and fines, and perhaps making them take English lessons to help them assimilate – all in exchange for a path to U.S. citizenship.
That basic framework happens to be what President George Bush proposed five years ago, but those ideas were trounced in the Senate. Still, his attempt offered more than President Barack Obama and Congress, who occasionally talk immigration – but never risk the danger of an actual proposal.
The reason, of course, is that poll after poll show passionate disapproval of illegal immigrants. But another survey, conducted this year by Raleigh’s Public Policy Polling, showed that 69 percent of Americans were in favor of a solution similar to Bush’s, with both penalties and a path to citizenship. That support included 80 percent of Republicans and 62 percent of Democrats. Surely, numbers like those might help regrow some spines in Washington.
Because what we have otherwise is Alabama and Arizona and, soon enough, North Carolina.
Here’s what we get from those laws: U.S. citizens carrying identification papers because they look a little brown. Legal Latinos going back to their homeland, too, because they rightfully feel unwelcome. We get, most of all, another shameful chapter of Americans struggling to welcome someone different from those already living among them.
That’s OK, some say, so long as the lawbreakers are leaving.
But where is it leaving us?