Alabama's message for Oregon: self-defeat

The Oregonian
October 7, 2011

by Oregonian Editorial Board

You'd think a killer virus was set loose upon northeast Alabama over the past week. That's how quickly people rushed into panic, some of them packing up and feeding pets for the last time before driving over the state line. And among those who stayed, thousands went into seclusion: Children avoided school and pregnant women stayed home, afraid to go to the hospital.

This is the price of having a last name like Gonzalez or Rodriguez and being undocumented in a state that fears Latino people are ruining the party.

This is not new. But Alabama's new immigration law -- patterned after efforts in Arizona and Georgia and upheld by a judge last week -- is peculiarly narrow-minded in its belief that jobs will somehow be saved for upright Alabamans struggling to find employment, so much of it in the agriculture and poultry processing sectors. The idea behind the law is to root out those unable to prove they're there legally, hold employers who hire them to account, question the right of American-born children of undocumented workers to attend public school, and otherwise strike fear into the heart of melting pot America.

For the moment and on legal grounds only, Alabama wins. But for months and years ahead, Alabama shows itself to be an epic loser that Oregon and every other state needs to watch as Exhibit A in how to blow holes in the feet: economically, politically, socially. What the law does besides scare people off, as tracked by The New York Times, is to create among those who stay an uneducated and needy underclass.

From our country's inception, immigrants have been our lifeblood. In recent decades, however, illegal immigration has posed challenge: At last count, there were more than 11 million undocumented folks embedded across the country. Yet in recent years, with the sputtering economy and high unemployment, some states desperate for jobs retrench, lay blame and think in protectionist ways. And that's where the self-defeating myopia sets in.

Georgia passed its anti-immigration law in April yet already watches thousands of acres of agricultural crops go to ruin, unharvested. A report released Tuesday by the Center for American Progress estimates Georgia's crop losses this year alone will hit $300 million while the law's broader damage to the state's economy this year could reach $1 billion.

This, too, is not new. The Oregon Center for Public Policy in 2007 calculated that unauthorized workers in Oregon paid $134 million to $187 million in combined state and federal taxes on wages in 2005. For those who would view their Oregon employers as scofflaws, consider that $97 million to $136 million in taxes were paid by employers on behalf of unauthorized workers in the same year.

Separately, the Pew Hispanic Center estimated well more than 5 percent of Oregon's workforce in 2008 was unauthorized immigrants, while 2010 U.S. Census data showed Hispanics overall making up nearly 12 percent of Oregon's population, up from 8 percent a decade earlier.

There's no going back, here or in Alabama, which has only a fraction of Oregon's immigrants. Long-overdue immigration reform calls upon states and the Congress not only to restate our best purposes in fostering a diverse society but to view all measures taken in dollars and cents.

The so-called reforms we're seeing in Arizona, Georgia and now Alabama only hurt regional economies, undercutting our best odds of finding national prosperity again. Treating these initiatives as viruses that do real harm would be a step in the right direction.

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