With Anti-Immigrant Law, Alabama is Again Ground Zero for
By Michelle Chen
In These Times
December 20, 2011
It’s not often that human rights and business profits line up
on the same side of a political debate, but Alabama is a
special place. The Cotton State was not only ground zero for
some of the worst abuses under Jim Crow; it was also the
flashpoint for early struggles that fused economic
empowerment with civil rights, including the Montgomery Bus
Boycott. Today, Alabama is once again a focal point for
racial and class struggles, ignited by an anti-immigrant law
that tests our definitions of economic citizenship in a world
of fluid borders.
The law, HB 56, mirrors many of the "copycat" anti-immigrant
bills that have gone viral in state legislatures from Arizona
to Indiana. It would impose onerous identification
requirements that encourage police to arrest and detain
anyone who couldn’t present the right papers. Although some
of the harsher provisions were blocked by a federal court
earlier this year, the legislation (signed into law in June)
still threatens to further demonize immigrants and to
crystallize the racist ideology driving a two-tier economy,
where the privileges of the elite are subsidized by the
vicious exploitation of the 99 percent.
Sadly, if the law were only a matter of shamelessly
scapegoating a group of vulnerable newcomers, the law might
face considerably less opposition. But the debate reveals a
convoluted class-based political calculus: employers contend
that draconian anti-immigrant policies could cripple the
They do have a point: Getting rid of the state’s undocumented
population - 2.5 percent of the state, according to the
Center for American Progress--wouldn’t translate into more
jobs for native-born workers or immigrants with green cards.
It would likely shred the already-impoverished state’s
$40 million - A conservative estimate of how much Alabama’s
economy would contract if only 10,000 undocumented immigrants
stopped working in the state as a result of H.B. 56.
$130 million - The amount Alabama’s undocumented immigrants
paid in taxes in 2010. These include state and local, income,
property, and consumption taxes. This revenue would be lost
if H.B. 56 were to do its job and drive all unauthorized
immigrants from the state.
$300,000 - The amount one farmer, Chad Smith of Smith Farms,
estimates he has lost because of labor shortages in the wake
of H.B. 56. Another farmer, Brian Cash of K&B Farm, estimates
that he lost $100,000 in one single month because of the law.
This projected economic consequences (not to mention the cost
of implementing and enforcing the law) would only exacerbate
the state's economic turmoil: nearly one in five in Alabama
live in poverty and unemployment hovers well above the
The impacts of HB 56 could span across immigrants’
communities, disrupting the education of their children and
subjecting even workers with papers to mistreatment and
discrimination by police as well as neighbors.
Even though economic anxieties are fueling the anti-immigrant
crackdown, economic concerns also inform the widening
opposition. Some pro-business advocates complain that the
loss of migrant labor hurts their bottom line, often because
others don't step up to fill backbreaking jobs like tomato
But here’s where the political landscape may slip dangerously
in a direction that counters the very principles on which
activists are fighting the law. Suddenly the case for a more
lenient policy toward "illegal aliens" is not that they’re
vital members of their families, communities, unions and
workplaces, or that immigration agents shouldn’t be
campaigning to tear apart families, or that everyone has a
right to due process, or that democracy in a pluralistic
society hinges on equality before the law. If you listen to
the bosses with whom civil rights groups have formed an
uneasy alliance, HB 56 is bad for Alabama not so much because
it criminalizes people who want nothing more than to make a
living for themselves, free of the oppression of an arbitrary
and dysfunctional legal regime.
Instead, it’s harmful because it’s bad for business.
But while the strange-bedfellows strategy may be politically
expedient, the opposition to Alabama’s anti-immigrant law
can’t be centered on a narrow calculus that elevates capital
above human rights. The Obama administration, too, has
challenged immigration policies in Alabama and Arizona on
anti-discrimination grounds, but overall, the White House has
perpetuated the rampant abuses that plague the federal
detention and deportation system.
And the deeper labor issues manifested by the immigration
crisis wouldn’t go away if the law were defeated: there would
still be no national discussion on combating wage theft,
human trafficking, and restrictions on the right to
organize--problems that affect native-born and immigrants
Marisa Franco of the National Day Labor Organizing Network
told In These Times:
Workers are increasingly facing situations where their bosses
and even customers or clients feel the authority to threaten
and harass with little recourse of justice. When local
police take a mandate to enforce federal immigration laws,
employers have a powerful tool to undermine hard won labor
protections. It's a threat to all workers and the
fundamental right to organize.
There's one way to reorient the dialogue toward rights and
away from profits: help workers and organized labor
understand that the zero-sum game of "competition" for the
most degrading jobs keeps the economically disenfranchised
divided along false lines of "legal" versus "illegal."
For now, activists may form strategic alliances to fight
anti-immigrant bills like Alabama’s. But if they let bosses
and big business frame the debate going forward, they’ll lose
the real battle - for economic justice for all.
© 2011 In These Times
[Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times.
She is a regular contributor to the labor rights blog Working
In These Times, Colorlines.com, and Pacifica's WBAI. Her work
has also appeared in Common Dreams, Alternet, Ms. Magazine,
Newsday, and her old zine, cain.]
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