The state's experiment in "self-deportation" reveals what might happen if the US sent 11 million undocumented workers home.
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In the spring of 2011, as Alabama lawmakers debated some of the harshest anti-immigration bills in the country, a monstrous twister ripped through the town of Tuscaloosa, flattening neighborhoods and killing 64 people. Everyone needed help—but many of the city's Latino residents stayed cowered in their homes, afraid of being thrown in jail if they emerged to seek food or shelter. Disaster workers were stunned by the reaction, suggesting that it might be a sign of what was in store if Republicans passed the pending legislation.
But within weeks, immigrants weren't just hiding—they were fleeing. The law, Alabama's HB 56, had passed in a landslide vote, and the state had quickly become hostile territory for anyone even suspected of being a foreigner. Officially titled the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, the law targeted immigrants—primarily Latinos—everywhere: in school, at work, in church, and on the street. Cops were not only allowed but required to demand immigration papers from anyone they suspected might be undocumented, and to hold him or her in jail until the individuals proved they had papers. Teachers could ask students about their legal status. HB 56 made it a crime to employ, house, or even give rides to undocumented individuals, effectively criminalizing any contact with illegal immigrants in the state.
Within a year, between 40,000 and 80,000 Latinos had bolted the state, according to a study by the University of Alabama's Center for Business and Economic Research, costing the state up to $10.8 billion in lost income and tax revenues. In the fourth season of VICE on HBO, correspondent Thomas Morton traveled to Alabama to see the effects of the state's so-called "self-deportation" policy firsthand, visiting towns and farms that have dried up in the absence of cheap undocumented labor.
Faced with a backlash from the state's business community—and a federal court ruling that declared many of the law's provisions unconstitutional—Alabama lawmakers had more or less given up on HB 56. That is, until Donald Trump came roaring into the state, telling a crowd of 30,000 ecstatic supporters in Mobile this August that he'd use HB 56-style tactics to drive undocumented immigrants out of the country entirely. The Republican frontrunner has devoted much of his campaign to this type of heated anti-immigration rhetoric, promising to end birthright citizenshipand create a "deportation force" to round up all 11 million illegal immigrants living in the US.
The message seems to be working: A poll conducted by Alabama's News 5 last week showed Trump with 40 percent support among Republican voters. To find out why people would continue to support policies that had demonstrably failed in their own state, we talked to Muzaffar Chishti, director of the Migration Policy Institute's office at NYU School of Law.
VICE: Alabama isn't the only state that has passed anti-immigration legislation. Why did the state face such a strong backlash?
Muzaffar Chishti: Alabama was one of five states that passed broad omnibus immigration legislation that covered a swath of territory, that had police stop people on the street and penalized people for hiring undocumented individuals or renting them accommodations. [But] Alabama got more attention for a variety of reasons. It was the most far reaching and for a brief period the court did allow many of the provisions to go forward, whereas many other states' provisions were blocked.
The provision that was particularly problematic was having teachers ask kids their immigration status. Some people stopped sending their kids to school, and kids started getting more teased in school. Then there was a section [of HB 56] about transactions—that [undocumented immigrants] cannot apply for electricity, a water meter, or for a mobile home. Anything that included a transaction was banned for an unauthorized worker, so that obviously had a lot of effect in people's daily life.
You were involved in the lawsuit to block HB 56. What was your side's argument?
We based it on constitutional law violations. A cop cannot ask a citizen for papers—that's an invasion of their constitutional right. The cops were asking people for papers on the grounds of their looks, based on racial profiling. It's a huge social problem, and it violates the 14th amendment.
How has Alabama been impacted economically?
A significant amount of people left the state, and the industries affected the most adversely were agriculture, hospitality, and some construction. Either people went to a neighboring state, or some became independent contractors because the immigration law only applies to employees. When people left the state it reduced the tax base—sales tax, income tax, and overall revenue. Investment went down. People do not want to invest in a state that is perceived to be hostile to immigrants in general.
Given that experience, can you explain why Donald Trump's anti-immigration rhetoric is resonating with Alabamans? It seems like there's a disconnect there.
The reason these anti-immigrant laws are so popular, and that he is so popular, is that people have anxiety about their economic wellbeing. and they are feeling anxiety about their cultural identity. They see that their state and cultural communities are changing and that is unnerving for people. In the past 20 years, the patterns of immigration settlement have changed in a big way, so parts of the country like Alabama suddenly had a large number of immigrants.
Trump says he can fix that. Would it be possible implement something like HB 56 on a national level?
There's no specificity in Donald Trump's statements. He makes broad statements that we should throw out all these undocumented workers, but that's a slogan—not a provision or law. Meanwhile, Trump has no idea how many unauthorized people work for him. If all undocumented people stopped working for Trump, his casinos would probably stop operating--that's the nature of our labor market. He knows immigrants are hugely important to our economy.
So why does he want to deport them?
These are feel good provisions, playing to people's anxieties and fears, but they are very difficult to implement in reality. They're unconstitutional. If you went into any neighborhood, how would you know who was unauthorized? Also, we already have a law that says employers should not hire unauthorized workers. We don't have the ability to enforce the laws we already have. His immigration rhetoric does not work in the real world. The laws come in conflict with the Constitution, with the economic needs of the state, and against our values.
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