Inside the Self-Deportation Movement
Page 2 of 4

"It's Just Not Right": The Failures of Alabama's Self-Deportation Experiment

What happens when outside agitators work with state politicians to pass the nation's most draconian anti-immigrant law yet? The Cotton State learned the hard way.

Yet for all the regional swagger, the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act (HB 56's official name) is part of a larger anti-immigration effort orchestrated by FAIR and its legal arm, the Immigration Reform Law Institute. The main architect is Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, lawyer for IRLI, who crafted Arizona's SB 1070 and who, in town after town, state after state, has helped write and refine dozens of nativist laws and ordinances. (See our profile of Kobach here. And check out our analysis of 164 anti-immigration laws passed since 2010 here.)

IRLI director Michael Hethmon calls these bills "field tests"—legal experiments launched wherever the political conditions are ripe, to see which will withstand court challenges in the hopes that one will eventually be upheld by the Supreme Court. Most of these field tests take the form of local ordinances or state laws with one or two provisions. What makes Alabama unique is that so many of the piecemeal experiments floated in other parts of the country were packed into one law.

Such bills are known as "field tests"—legal experiments launched wherever political conditions are ripe, to see which will withstand court challenges. What makes Alabama unique is that so many of the piecemeal experiments floated elsewhere were packed into one law.

It didn't start out that way. Back in 2007, Kobach had advised Beason on a series of anti-immigration bills, only to see them shot down by the Democratic majority. But fortunes changed in 2010, when the state GOP unveiled the "Republican Handshake With Alabama," an aggressive platform that pledged tax reductions, an end to wasteful spending and corruption in Montgomery, and a vow to protect Alabamians from federal "attack" in the form of "socialized health care." The most rousing rhetoric was reserved for illegal immigration, described as a force that "threatens our homeland security, reduces the quality of life for taxpaying citizens," and places Alabama's resources "under tremendous burden." The Handshake promised to give law enforcement the power to arrest an illegal immigrant "for simply setting foot in Alabama." In the end, the Handshake helped Alabama Republicans win a supermajority in the Legislature, their first since Reconstruction.

Police chief Steven Anderson says that Alabama's new law requires his officers to check documentation during traffic stops and follow up on clearly frivolous tips—all with no extra training or funding.Police chief Steven Anderson says that Alabama's new law requires his officers to check documentation during traffic stops and follow up on clearly frivolous tips—all with no extra training or funding.

Once the GOP controlled the Statehouse, Kobach helped Beason and Hammon craft a more sweeping law than had ever been attempted anywhere. Kobach said the legislators "had already decided that this was going to cover the waterfront." His role was to take the blustering tone of the Handshake and transform it into "a state-of-the-art bill" that could withstand the lawsuits it would inevitably trigger—and serve as a template for similar efforts in other states.

"They were enthusiastic about trying virtually every area of law where immigration status could be a factor," IRLI's Hethmon said. "There was a sense that they wanted to be the toughest. They wanted bragging rights. But they were also sensitive to the fact that it would have to be scrubbed by the courts. Where Kobach was essential was the technical review. He had the background to convince them that it would be more productive to drop their cherished rhetorical expressions in their draft bills and use the denser, but more defensible, formulations that were coming out of our shop. So in our view, the stars lined up in Alabama."

However dense the language of HB 56 may be, its spirit is best understood as "attrition through enforcement." "If you ratchet up the level of enforcement," Kobach said, "people begin to comply with the law. That's a fundamental principle of deterrence. It's cheaper and it doesn't make that much of an imposition on the freedom of the illegal alien."

In other words, from the perspective of the immigration hardliners, the Alabama exodus since September isn't only the more cost-effective means of getting rid of undocumented aliens, but also the more humane way to do it—an exercise in free will.

"Illegal aliens are as logical as citizens," Hethmon added. "They make a rational calculation, both in coming to the country and deciding to stay. They say, Can I make money? Can I get my basic human needs—housing, medical care—taken care of? And most importantly, to what extent can I function below the radar? In other words, to what extent can I, in a practical sense, nullify the nation's legal distinctions between those who are citizens and those who are not? Whether they're violating a federal criminal statute or federal civil statute or one at the state level is not that relevant. If they begin to believe that there are adverse consequences to their lawbreaking, they will self-deport."

"Illegal aliens are as logical as citizens," said IRLI director Michael Hethmon. "If they begin to believe that there are adverse consequences to their lawbreaking, they will self-deport."

Kobach—a charismatic 45-year-old former Eagle Scout (and former adviser to Attorney General John Ashcroft) whose bio stresses his missionary work as well as his Ivy League pedigree—insists that the laws he ghostwrites are saving taxpayers money by freeing jobs for Americans, driving up wages, and reducing the financial burden undocumented immigrants place on public resources, including the cost of deporting them. "There is absolutely no credible dispute to the fact that illegal immigration costs government a lot in terms of public benefits, in terms of incarceration costs, in terms of costs borne by government," he told me.

But Kobach omits the costs to defend the laws that Kobach crafts. Hazleton, Pennsylvania, a town of 25,000, racked up $2.8 million in legal fees; Farmers Branch, Texas, spent nearly $4.3 million. Kobach helped train the officers of Arizona's infamous Sheriff Joe Arpaio in immigration enforcement strategies; the DOJ recently ruled that Arpaio's department created "a pervasive culture of discriminatory bias against Latinos" and revoked its authority to conduct immigration screenings. The cost to the towns and states that have adopted his legislation, from Hazleton to Dallas, Missouri to Nebraska, is at least $6 million—money ill spent, some would argue, since many of the laws he's helped write have been blocked by the courts. For his efforts, Kobach says he's earned "less than a million dollars."

Tornado damage in TuscaloosaTornado damage in Tuscaloosa
Tuscaloosa was one of the towns hardest hit by April's tornadoes. Driving along University Avenue, Police Chief Steven Anderson pointed toward empty lots: "There was a fire station back there," he said, motioning out the window. "There used to be an apartment complex behind it. There, that used to be Alberta Baptist Church." All told, more than 3,000 homes and businesses were damaged. It didn't bode well that construction lobbyists were complaining to the newspapers that a noticeable chunk of their workforce had fled the state following HB 56.

In the days after the storm, Anderson realized that very few Latinos had shown up at the FEMA aid stations set up around town, despite the damage done to their neighborhoods—in particular, to the Graceland Apartments complex, where the brick facades were shredded and the rubble of a roof piled up behind windows.

Following a hunch, Anderson sent officers into these buildings. They discovered Latino families hiding in the ruins, nursing cuts and broken bones. Many wouldn't ask for help from FEMA or the police or at hospitals for fear of being deported. Some had sought aid at Holy Spirit Catholic Church, which converted its parish hall into a makeshift shelter and even let some families sleep there, even though such sanctuary was criminalized by HB 56. (That provision was later enjoined by Judge Blackburn.)

"We're not going to sit there for two hours with a traffic stop or with a suspect waiting for the federal government to get back to us on the paperwork," Tuscaloosa's police chief told me. "We have a job to do."

As we toured the damage, Anderson said he supported the concept of immigration reform but then detailed a litany of complaints about HB 56. Could local law enforcement agencies—already gutted by layoffs and budget cuts—afford to train deputies to double as immigration officers? "We were told they were going to provide training for us," he said, "and that didn't happen. You just had a group of people who wanted a bill passed, and they did it. No guidance, no training, no funding." Then there is a county jail with capacity for 540 inmates that's already packed with more than 600. Not to mention the time suck: "We're not going to sit there for two hours with a traffic stop or with a suspect waiting for the federal government to get back to us on the paperwork," he told me as he turned down the crackled voices coming over his dispatch radio. "We have a job to do."

Worse, he said, was the damage the law has done to the social fabric. "The law actually tells citizens, if you see something, you call in and you report it. And if law enforcement doesn't do anything about it, you can file a civil suit against the heads of the departments for failing to enforce it." Essentially, officers are required to investigate even clearly frivolous tips—a scenario he fears will lead to profiling and harassment, and trigger a host of lawsuits down the line. "You'll have racist people that decide they're just going to pick up the phone and make a call," he said. "On other laws—murder, robbery, burglary—they don't have to put a statute in there that says, 'If you fail to enforce this law, chief of police, you could be held civilly responsible and can be fined X number of dollars per day that you fail to act.'" He shook his head. "They know how bad this law is, so they decided they needed to do something to give us extra incentive to enforce it."

As of this writing, under the new guidelines of the law, Tuscaloosa police have arrested 141 people for driving without proper identification: 97 blacks, 34 Latinos, and 10 whites. Twenty-eight people were handed over to ICE, though officials could not confirm how many, if any, have been deported.

Page 2 of 4
Get Mother Jones by Email - Free. Like what you're reading? Get the best of MoJo three times a week.