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No One Wants To Criminalize 11 Million People. Too Bad The House’s New Bill Does Just That

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It’s a fundamental truth of the immigration debate: the fastest way to get Latinos and immigrants fighting mad is to try to turn 11 million undocumented immigrants into criminals. In 2006, when the House tried to turn being in the U.S. without papers into a crime under the infamous “Sensenbrenner bill,” millions of Latinos and immigrants took to the streets in massive rallies to stand up for their community. And in 2010, when Arizona passed SB 1070, the Latino community of Arizona responded with massive voter registration and mobilization that ultimately succeeded in kicking SB 1070 champion Russell Pearce out of office.

Now, in one of the first bills the House Judiciary Committee is taking up as part of their so-called “piecemeal” strategy for immigration reform, they’re trying to do the same thing again. But it’s unclear how many House Republicans even know what their bill really does—and whether they’d support it if they did.

The bill is incredibly complex, and its authors (House Judiciary Committee Chairman Bob Goodlatte and Immigration Subcommittee Chairman Trey Gowdy) claim it’s targeted at undocumented immigrants who commit other crimes. The centerpiece of the bill, as they see it, is a section that nationalizes Arizona’s “show me your papers” law—authorizing any local or state police officer in the country to enforce federal immigration law, and threatening those that don’t with defunding. House Republicans offered a forceful defense of the Arizonification provision at a hearing on the bill yesterday, and attacked Democrats and immigration advocates for disrespecting police officers by saying they “weren’t good enough to help enforce immigration law.”

Of course, as we know—and as you know—saying that laws like this lead to racial profiling isn’t some kind of anti-police slur. It’s the truth. Karen Tumlin of the National Immigration Law Center, who testified at the hearing, spent more time getting yelled at by faux-outraged GOPers than actually speaking, but she made exactly this point in an op-ed for The Hill. You might not need the reminder of what actually happened in Arizona and Alabama when these laws were passed, but apparently the House GOP does:

After the law took effect, a Latino family reported pulling out of the Wal-Mart parking lot in Decatur, Ala., and being followed by a police unit for a half-mile before getting pulled over. The officer told the driver he had parked in the no-parking zone in front of the store. The man, whose family was with him, explained he had pulled up to the store exit to pick up his wife and young child and spare them the cold walk to the car. The man asked the officer why he was not stopped in the parking lot, and the officer responded by threatening to issue a ticket. For what? Not signaling when he made a turn, came the next explanation. But, no ticket was issued, as there was no cause for the stop.

Similarly, a longtime Alabama resident from Honduras who is legally in the United States, complained of being stopped after dark by police and subjected to a prolonged roadside detention. The officer had followed her for a while before pulling her over. The officer first asked why she was “hurrying,” then said her car’s high beams were on, though he did not say whether that was a driving violation. He peppered her with questions about her immigration status, leaving her convinced that she was stopped merely because of her ethnicity.

These are just two of thousands of complaints received by a coalition — including the National Immigration Law Center, American Civil Liberties Union, and Southern Poverty Law Center — that challenged the laws in Alabama and other states. The lawsuits were largely based on the constitutional principle later upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court, that federal government has supreme authority over immigration law and enforcement, not the states.

But with all the back-and-forth over the Arizonification part of Goodlatte and Gowdy’s bill, the other crucial aspect of the bill got lost: like the Sensenbrenner bill and SB 1070, it would turn being undocumented while in the United States into a crime. House GOPers and witnesses told story after story about undocumented immigrants who committed horrible crimes, but never acknowledged that the bill treats 11 million people as criminals.

Until Rep. Luis Gutierrez gave an impassioned speech that tore the mask off the bill and revealed how ugly it really was:

Rep. Gutierrez’ speech worked.  Every Republican who spoke after him—including Rep. Tom Marino (R-PA), Rep. Raul Labrador (R-ID) and Rep. Doug Collins (R-GA)–claimed that they weren’t saying all undocumented immigrants were criminals, they were just trying to go after the ones that were. It was a rare note of bipartisan consensus in what was otherwise an extremely contentious hearing. Here’s the only problem: they didn’t acknowledge that the bill they were defending does exactly what they claim they don’t want to do.

If Republicans really don’t want to treat 11 million people like criminals, they shouldn’t, logically, want to turn every police officer in the country into a de facto ICE agent. But even if the two parties disagree on Arizonification, it sure sounded yesterday like Republicans have finally learned that criminalizing 11 million people doesn’t fly. Which raises the question: why do they support the Goodlatte-Gowdy bill? And will they continue to support it once they learn what it really does?