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Emily Butera's picture

Fifty years ago, Alabama found itself at the center of a national battle for justice and civil rights. The bus boycotts, freedom rides and efforts to integrate schools and universities are widely looked upon as watershed moments in the march towards equality. The history books tell us that progress on this front has been significant and sustained. Yet once again, Alabama is a focal point in a controversy over civil and human rights, the outcome of which could have far-reaching implications for families and communities across the country.

Judge Sharon Blackburn’s decision not to block implementation of large swaths of Alabama’s restrictionist immigration law is the latest assault on immigrant families. The troops in this new war have charged into battle under the banner of community safety and economic security. But laws that make children afraid to go to school, mothers terrified to call the police and fathers too scared to drive a sick child to the hospital are not making us safer. Rather, they are sowing tremendous instability in communities that are already forced to live on the margins of society, and are increasing the likelihood of an economic and social ripple effect that will impact all of us.

HB56, the Alabama law, is actually more extreme than SB 1070, the 2010 Arizona immigration law that was struck down by a federal appeals court. Among its harsher provisions, HB56 would require schools to verify the immigration status of all children who enroll, and that of their parents, and would require police to check the immigration status of anyone they suspect of being in the country without status, even those pulled over during a traffic stop.

It is widely feared that as Alabama goes on HB56, so goes the country. It would be easy in this time of economic crisis to look inward and to let the general sense of uncertainty and insecurity feed growing anti-immigrant sentiment. But this is a dangerous proposition. We cannot dismiss the fact that there are 11 million undocumented people in this country, and that they are making significant contributions to our economy, especially in the service and manufacturing industries and in agriculture. We also cannot forget that we are truly a melting pot. Not only are many families a blend of cultural, religious and racial heritage, increasingly they are a blend of immigration statuses too. Five and a half million children in the United States have at least one undocumented parent; 4.5 million of these children are U.S. citizens. Many of these citizens also have brothers and sisters who are immigrants, or are undocumented themselves. The ripple effect of the war on immigrants could quickly spread.

Imagine the implications of living in a country where parents decide not to enroll their children in school because they are afraid that they will be rounded up and deported. What happens to those children in five years, or in ten, when they have no formal education and no job prospects?  What are the implications for community safety when a mother who is the victim of domestic violence is afraid to call the police because she knows it could lead to her deportation? What are the long-term physical and emotional implications for her children, who are caught in a Catch-22 between family violence and permanent separation from their caregiver? Studies show us that children who experience violence in the home are far more likely to become perpetrators of violence as adults. Lastly, what does this mean for those who came to this country seeking protection? Although unlikely to face deportation, under HB56, refugees and asylees could find themselves the victims of discrimination and racial profiling.

In my work at the Women’s Refugee Commission, I regularly meet parents who face impossible choices. I have seen the anguish in a mother’s eyes when she knows that her phone call to the police set in motion a series of events that led to her imminent deportation and to her children being left with their abusive father. I have heard the stories of fathers who were picked up during a traffic stop, while trying to get home to a sick child, and were detained, leaving the child without the one person who is able to provide for his care.

Many are quick to condemn the parent for coming to this country without a visa and to dismiss the impact on the child as the unfortunate consequences of the parent’s choice. But this assessment is oversimplified and far too few are willing to ask the hard questions about what happens to these children, their families and our communities when our laws and policies further entrench their marginalization.

There is a real and urgent need to reform our immigration laws so that the undocumented can obtain status and so that we have a sensible, workable and legal way to reunify families and meet the needs of our economy in the future. But nobody wins when the only response to our broken system is enforcement, and when immigrants and their children are forced to live in the shadows of our economy and society. Making it harder to earn a living, get an education and live in a safe and loving environment will not end the problem of illegal immigration. It only sets us up for a future with greater instability, division and discord.

Emily Butera is senior program officer, detention and asylum program, Women's Refugee Commission.

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