Conservatives are resorting to ever more draconian measures to take back the country from “illegal immigrants.” The latest state to declare an all-out jihad is Alabama. But as with slavery and segregation, they are using the government to commit sins that will eventually require even more government to undo.
Alabama’s law is by far the worst in a slew of similar bills across the country. Like Arizona, the ringleader, Alabama requires police to arrest—without bond, in its case—anyone unable to produce proof of residency. But that’s the kindest thing in the law. It’ll also bar courts from enforcing contracts involving undocumented workers, leaving them no legal recourse against employers who refuse to pay, for example. What’s more, undocumented households will face felony charges if they try to obtain basic municipal services such as running water.
But the provision that has struck terror in Alabama’s Hispanic community is that schools will now be required to collect information about the residency status of students and share it—albeit minus the names—with state authorities. Thousands of Hispanic kids have reportedly dropped out of school, fearing that this is a set up for future deportation.
The idea obviously is to make life so miserable for undocumented workers that they will leave the Heart of Dixie voluntarily. It is deeply ironic that a state that once violated human rights to maintain cheap, black, slave labor is now doing so again to keep out cheap, brown, voluntary labor that, even George Borjas, the Harvard economist much loved by restrictionists because he opposes more open immigration policies, grudgingly admits raises an average American’s wealth by about 1 percent.
But there are parallels galore between the restrictionist and the segregationist crusades.
The most obvious is that they both invoke a grand American principle to justify a dubious cause. Racists justified slavery and Jim Crow in the name of states’ rights then and restrictionists are justifying their attack on illegals in the name of the “rule of law” now. But rule of law in the service of bad laws is a form of tyranny.
There are 11 million undocumented workers in this country because U.S. immigration policies have closed practically all options for them to legally work and live here. Every country has a right to control its borders. But both liberal and illiberal immigration policies are consistent with this right. Dispatching drones and erecting electric fences to prevent willing foreign workers from being hired by willing domestic employers are tactics more suitable to a police state than a free republic.
But a bigger similarity between restrictionists and segregationists is their total blindness to what they are doing to a minority community. If restrictionists have their way, undocumented kids will have a hard time attending school, going to college, or ever gaining citizenship.
Meanwhile, the Obama administration, buckling under restrictionist pressure, deported nearly 400,000 undocumented workers in fiscal 2011, an all-time record. Given that nearly 52 percent of illegals live in mixed-status families, this means that many American children and spouses lost a source of income. Even more tragically, a study released by the Applied Research Center last week found that at least 5,100 children whose parents have been detained or deported are under foster care—a number it expects will grow to 15,000 over the next five years.
Closing off economic opportunities and tearing apart families will ghettoize a subset of Hispanics just as segregation and Jim Crow ghettoized southern blacks. Right now, a country caught up in a restrictionist fury might not care.
But a civilized society doesn’t forever tolerate such blatant inhumanity. Ultimately, some triggering event forces it to confront its turpitudes.
For decades, Americans looked the other way as blacks endured lynchings and daily indignities in the Jim Crow south. But then a relatively minor incident—the disappearance of three voter rights activists in Mississippi (who were subsequently found murdered by the Klan)—shocked the nation. In its aftermath, President Lyndon Johnson pushed through the Civil Rights Act in 1964, paving the way for a giant growth in federal power, some licit and some illicit.
The act rightly banned government-based racial discrimination. But it also banned private discrimination by businesses. This certainly abrogated their right of voluntary association, but there were no other credible options to root out the systemic racism that froze blacks out of mainstream southern society prepared to impose its ways through violence.
But the Civil Rights era also inaugurated affirmative action programs giving less qualified blacks a leg up. This was unfair, but a nation experiencing a massive guilt attack couldn’t make such fine moral distinctions. And conservatives, who’d lost their credibility by being on the wrong side of history, couldn’t convince it otherwise.
Something of this sort is likely to repeat itself. Restrictionists can’t forever suspend America’s innate sense of justice and equality. Ultimately, the country will have to take responsibility for the havoc their agenda has wreaked on the Hispanic community—especially since Hispanics will comprise a third of the population by 2050. It’ll be impossible to reject their demands for government reparations and programs.
So the question is what do conservatives hate more: big government or undocumented workers? If it is the former, then they should stop drinking any more restrictionist poison. And if it is the latter, then they should stop pretending to be the party of limited government.
Reason Foundation Senior Analyst Shikha Dalmia is a columnist at The Daily, where a version of this column originally appeared.