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Alabama's "HB 56 Is In Ruins": The Repudiation of Self-Deportation, Krikorian and Kobach

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Two years ago, we were deeply involved in the battle against Alabama’s HB 56, the harshest immigration law in the country. HB 56 was a self-deportation bill that relied on racial profiling to harass immigrants in the state. But, as Benjy Sarlin notes, today, HB 56 is in shambles:

“Illegal is illegal.” With that rallying cry, Alabama passed HB 56 in 2011, the harshest state immigration law in the country.

The lead sponsor of the bill boasted to state representatives that the law “attacks every aspect of an illegal alien’s life.” Among its key provisions: landlords were banned from renting homes to undocumented immigrants, children had to rat out their parents to school principals, police were required to arrest suspected immigration violators. Even giving unauthorized immigrants a ride became a crime.

The vast scope of the law turned Alabama into the first major test for the anti-immigration movement. If self-deportation didn’t work there, it’s hard to imagine where it could. Early reports suggested success: undocumented immigrants appeared to flee Alabama en masse. But two years later, HB 56 is in ruins. Its most far-reaching elements have proved unconstitutional, unworkable, or politically unsustainable. Elected officials, social workers, clergy, activists, and residents say an initial immigrant evacuation that roiled their communities ended long ago. Many who fled have returned to their old homes.

As we know, self-deportation is the brain-child of Mark Krikorian and Kris Kobach. You may recall how gleeful Krikorian was after Mitt Romney endorsed that policy. We know how that worked out for Romney politically. And,  self-deportation backfired even in Alabama, but only after causing undo harm to immigrants, the economy of the state and Alabama’s reputation. Crops were rotting in the fields and executives from foreign car companies (major employers in the state) were detained under HB 56. No doubt, there was an profound human toll from the law when it was in effect. Of course, Krikorian seemed to take comfort in that damage:

“Alabama illustrated that illegal immigrants will respond to changed incentives,” Mark Krikorian, Executive Director of the Center for Immigration Studies and a backer of HB 56, told msnbc.

Those were the glory days for Krikorian. Self-deportation in action. But, fortunately, it didn’t last long. Again, as Sarlin notes: HB 56 is in ruins.

Krikorian’s self-deportation side-kick, Kris Kobach, also got rebuffed in the state as has the anti-immigrant sentiment which upon which those two thrive:

Among state and local officials, the anti-immigration fever that led to the law’s passage has substantially subsided.

In 2008, Albertville’s local elections were dominated by calls to stop illegal immigration. But by the time the 2012 elections rolled around, the main proponents of the anti-immigration push, Councilman Chuck Ellis and Mayor Lindsey Lyons, were voted out of office along with every incumbent except Council president Nathan Broadhurst. Immigration was barely an issue in the race.

Broadhurst, along with current Mayor Tracy Honea, takes a more moderate stance on the issue. He said a turning point for the city government was when Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State considered the intellectual force behind self-deportation, offered his services to help them sue businesses for profiting off illegal labor. The council voted his proposal down 3-2.

“The majority of us felt like it was counterproductive to try and go after local industries,” Broadhurst said. “Especially industries that are so vital to the tax base of the city.” he believes Albertville has reached a detente as the city’s different communities interact more.

“Certainly I think it changes the dynamics of a town,” Honea said of the last two decades of immigration. “But I think the community as a whole has grown and learned a lot. For the most part they’ve embraced the reality of what it is.”

Elected officials realized that Kobach would do harm to their economic well-being.

As a policy, self-deportation has become politically radioactive. Only the hard-core of the hard-core will even talk about it like it’s a real policy anymore. Krikorian and Kobach turned their policy into a political loser.

Alabama is still a challenging place for immigrants:

After two years of turmoil, undocumented immigrants aren’t leaving Alabama. But they still live in fear of deportation and have no obvious way of becoming full-fledged Americans.

The solution for Alabama and its immigrant population is for Congress to pass immigration reform with a path to citizenship. And, that can – and should – happen in 2014.