It’s not often that human rights and business profits line up on the same side of a political debate, but Alabama is a special place. The Cotton State was not only ground zero for some of the worst abuses under Jim Crow; it was also the flashpoint for early struggles that fused economic empowerment with civil rights, including the Montgomery Bus Boycott. Today, Alabama is once again a focal point for racial and class struggles, ignited by an anti-immigrant law that tests our definitions of economic citizenship in a world of fluid borders.
The law, HB 56, mirrors many of the “copycat” anti-immigrant bills that have gone viral in state legislatures from Arizona to Indiana. It would impose onerous identification requirements that encourage police to arrest and detain anyone who couldn’t present the right papers. Although some of the harsher provisions were blocked by a federal court earlier this year, the legislation (signed into law in June) still threatens to further demonize immigrants and to crystallize the racist ideology driving a two-tier economy, where the privileges of the elite are subsidized by the vicious exploitation of the 99 percent.
Sadly, if the law were only a matter of shamelessly scapegoating a group of vulnerable newcomers, the law might face considerably less opposition. But the debate reveals a convoluted class-based political calculus: employers contend that draconian anti-immigrant policies could cripple the economy.
They do have a point: Getting rid of the state’s undocumented population — 2.5 percent of the state, according to the Center for American Progress–wouldn’t translate into more jobs for native-born workers or immigrants with green cards. It would likely shred the already-impoverished state’s balance sheet:
$40 million — A conservative estimate of how much Alabama’s economy would contract if only 10,000 undocumented immigrants stopped working in the state as a result of H.B. 56.
$130 million — The amount Alabama’s undocumented immigrants paid in taxes in 2010. These include state and local, income, property, and consumption taxes. This revenue would be lost if H.B. 56 were to do its job and drive all unauthorized immigrants from the state.
$300,000 — The amount one farmer, Chad Smith of Smith Farms, estimates he has lost because of labor shortages in the wake of H.B. 56. Another farmer, Brian Cash of K&B Farm, estimates that he lost $100,000 in one single month because of the law.
This projected economic consequences (not to mention the cost of implementing and enforcing the law) would only exacerbate the state’s economic turmoil: nearly one in five in Alabama live in poverty and unemployment hovers well above the nationwide rate.
The impacts of HB 56 could span across immigrants’ communities, disrupting the education of their children and subjecting even workers with papers to mistreatement and discrimination by police as well as neighbors.
Even though economic anxieties are fueling the anti-immigrant crackdown, economic concerns also inform the widening opposition. Some pro-business advocates complain that the loss of migrant labor hurts their bottom line, often because others don’t step up to fill backbreaking jobs like tomato picking.
But here’s where the political landscape may slip dangerously in a direction that counters the very principles on which activists are fighting the law. Suddenly the case for a more lenient policy toward “illegal aliens” is not that they’re vital members of their families, communities, unions and workplaces, or that immigration agents shouldn’t be campaigning to tear apart families, or that everyone has a right to due process, or that democracy in a pluralistic society hinges on equality before the law. If you listen to the bosses with whom civil rights groups have formed an uneasy alliance, HB 56 is bad for Alabama not so much because it criminalizes people who want nothing more than to make a living for themselves, free of the oppression of an arbitrary and dysfunctional legal regime.
Instead, it’s harmful because it’s bad for business.
But while the strange-bedfellows strategy may be politically expedient, the opposition to Alabama’s anti-immigrant law can’t be centered on a narrow calculus that elevates capital above human rights. The Obama administration, too, has challenged immigration policies in Alabama and Arizona on anti-discrimination grounds, but overall, the White House has perpetuated the rampant abuses that plague the federal detention and deportation system.
And the deeper labor issues manifested by the immigration crisis wouldn’t go away if the law were defeated: there would still be no national discussion on combating wage theft, human trafficking, and restrictions on the right to organize – problems that affect native-born and immigrants alike.
Marisa Franco of the National Day Labor Organizing Network told In These Times:
Workers are increasingly facing situations where their bosses and even customers or clients feel the authority to threaten and harass with little recourse of justice. When local police take a mandate to enforce federal immigration laws, employers have a powerful tool to undermine hard won labor protections. It’s a threat to all workers and the fundamental right to organize.
There’s one way to reorient the dialogue toward rights and away from profits: help workers and organized labor understand that the zero-sum game of “competition” for the most degrading jobs keeps the economically disenfranchised divided along false lines of “legal” versus “illegal.”
For now, activists may form strategic alliances to fight anti-immigrant bills like Alabama’s. But if they let bosses and big business frame the debate going forward, they’ll lose the real battle — for economic justice for all.
Michelle Chen is a contributing writer at In These Times and The Nation, a contributing editor at Dissent and a co-producer of the “Belabored” podcast. She studies history at the CUNY Graduate Center. She tweets at @meeshellchen.