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Center for American Progress

Inaction Begets Reaction: Stalled Immigration Reform Sparks Problems

Inaction Begets Reaction: Stalled Immigration Reform Sparks Problems

After comprehensive immigration reform stalled, local authorities less able to deal with the issue step into the breach, writes Henry Fernandez.

Now that Congress and the Bush administration have failed to act on comprehensive immigration reform, we can expect a range of policies to be put in place across the country by local and state government. Many of these will be punitive and not very well thought out, as is evident in the recent vote by Virginia’s Prince William County Supervisors to restrict services provided to undocumented immigrants.

Prince William County’s new policies will do nothing to solve the problem of some 12 million undocumented immigrants, but the new restrictions will almost certainly lead to racial profiling of Latinos, including U.S. citizens and those who are here legally. One legal resident made his fear clear to The Washington Post:

"How are we supposed to survive here?" asked Gregorio Calderón, a legal U.S. resident from El Salvador who said he worries that police will harass him because of his ethnicity. "They’re going to pull me over just for being Hispanic."

And why was such a law passed? Apparently because of xenophobic and simplistic attitudes like this one given in testimony before the supervisors:

"I’m tired of pressing ‘1’ for English" on the phone, Woodbridge resident Chris King said.

Immigration policy should be decided based on thorough analysis, our nation’s fundamental commitment to human dignity, and our historic role of welcoming “masses yearning to breathe free.” Our representatives in Congress should be making these kinds of decisions, not Prince William County’s supervisors, who chose a different direction—one that likely will have little impact on the number of immigrants who call the United States home but will surely keep immigrants hiding in the shadows and reinforce stereotypes.

Not that all local governments will make the same decision as Prince William County. Cities and counties across the country have passed laws to protect immigrants and citizens alike. New Haven, Conn., for example, recognized that having an estimated 10 percent of its population unwilling to talk to police or unable to put money in a bank account could lead to catastrophe, with immigrants being robbed because they would have to carry large sums of cash. That’s why New Haven has introduced a policy in which police will not ask the immigration status of anyone who is a victim of or witness to a crime.

New Haven will also shortly allow all city residents, without regard to immigration status, to get a municipal identification card to facilitate access to banking services as well as the library, public beaches, and other city services. New Haven’s approach is not surprising. Over the last decade, immigrants have helped build the economic turnaround in the city.

New Haven’s policies make a lot more sense than those recently enacted in Prince William County, but both communities’ decisions reflect the abject failure of federal policy. Undocumented immigrants will continue to live and work in the same numbers in towns and cities across the United States even if they lack a method for legal status and a clear path to citizenship. But short of comprehensive immigration reform enacted by Congress, undocumented immigrants will face a hodgepodge of local laws depending on where they live or what county line they happen to cross in their daily lives. These laws will sometimes trample upon their human rights and at other times protect those rights.

This is no way to run a nation. In the words of New Haven Mayor John Destefano, speaking to The Hartford Courant: “All of us seek not to write new federal policy but to act in the face of the failure of federal responsibility.” He’s right, of course.

Henry Fernandez is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress focusing on state and municipal policy.

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Henry Fernandez

Senior Fellow