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When it comes to scapegoating immigrants for America’s woes, the Deep South takes the cake. From slavery to Jim Crow?legalized, racial segregation?to the recent wave of anti-immigration rhetoric and policies, the South has taken the lead, once again, in passing the harshest, racist laws against los de abajo / those on the bottom.
Not wanting to be outdone by other xenophobic states, such as Arizona, Utah, Indiana and Georgia, Alabama Governor Robert Bentley signed HB 56 into law on June 6, 2011. This draconian law targets undocumented immigrants in numerous areas, such as public benefits, employment, housing, public education and law enforcement.
It also promotes racial profiling against all Latinos, with or without legal status in this country, since the law requires that police officers inquire into the citizenship status of all individuals under the guise of “reasonable suspicion.” It doesn’t take a scientific study to predict that those most likely to be targeted will be brown-skinned individuals. In addition to making police officers take on the role of immigration agents or la migra, as Mexican immigrants “fondly” refer to them, HB 56 also transforms teachers and school officials into feared immigration agents by requiring them to check the legal status of all K -12 children.
If instilling fear onto innocent, Spanish-speaking children isn’t cruel and unusual punishment, I don’t know what is.
There are other racist elements to this law. For instance, a U.S. citizen can be arrested for so-called “harboring” an undocumented immigrant by simply having him or her over for a family celebration. Landlords will also be legally liable for renting to someone who lacks legal status in this country, prompting landowners to avoid renting to anyone named Jose, Jesus or Maria. In addition, single-mothers or the elderly can run afoul of the law by simply hiring a day laborer from the street corner or home improvement centers like Home Depot for moving heavy furniture or clearing dangerous brush from the front yard that may cause fires.
For those of us who believe in equality and social justice for all individuals, especially the most vulnerable among us, we need to re-frame the issue of immigration as a human rights issue. If we limit the national debate on immigration reform, for instance, as a false dichotomy between “law-abiding citizens” versus “law-breaking immigrants,” then those who advocate for fear and hate win.
The anti-immigration leaders in this country, especially the Republican leaders who are spearheading these xenophobic efforts, constantly preach about freedom, liberty and justice for all. They especially warn us about government intrusion into our lives. Don’t these principles also apply to Latinos who will also be the victims of big government in the form of immigration laws that promote racial profiling?
While I can understand that many Americans face uncertain and fearful times in this Great Recession, however, I find it unacceptable for them to constantly blame undocumented immigrants for America’s economic downfall. Like the previous millions of Europeans who abandoned their homelands due to religious persecution, war and economic upheaval in their home countries, so too do these newcomers from Latin American and beyond arrive in this country to seek a better life for themselves and their families.
It’s clear that Republican leaders know that these draconian state laws, such as the case of Arizona’s SB 1070 and Alabama’s HB 56, will be contested in the courts on constitutional grounds. They are well aware that the federal government?not the states?has jurisdiction over immigration law. Why then do they pursue this state-by-state, anti-immigration law strategy? Simply put, Republican leaders are counting that these state laws will inevitably go to the conservative-dominated Supreme Court with the hopes of legalizing xenophobia in this country.
At the end of the day, if the Republican leaders inevitably prevail at the Supreme Court, it will not the first time the highest court of the land ruled in favor of legalized racism, as we can clearly see in the cases of slavery and Jim Crow era, where racial segregation prevailed for many years throughout American neighborhoods, public schools, public places, transportation, private business, government programs and the military.
If the majority of Americans don’t act now and demand that their elected officials seek a humane immigration policy throughout the country, we should not be surprised if Juan Crow soon replaces the odious Jim Crow.
Alvaro Huerta is a Ph.D. Candidate in the Dept. of City & Regional Planning (UC Berkeley) and a Visiting Scholar at the Chicano Studies Research Center (UCLA). He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.