Too tough on illegal immigration

Thursday, February 21, 2008

It's getting ugly out there for illegal immigrants. States and cities are cracking down with harsh new ordinances, and the courts are upholding them. Not only are deportations at record highs, but immigrants are being detained at places previously understood to be off-limits, such as schools. The debate about illegal immigration, labor, social justice and international trade has devolved into open season on illegal immigrants.

Arizona penalizes employers who knowingly hire illegal immigrants, suspending their business license for 10 days for the first offense, revoking it permanently for the second. Valley Park in Missouri fines businesses that hire illegal immigrants. Oklahoma not only forbids their hiring and bars them from receiving tax-supported services -- except healthcare -- it also makes it a felony for anyone to transport, shelter or conceal illegal immigrants.

It's nothing new for states and municipalities to try to regulate immigration. California pioneered that trail in 1994 with the passage of Proposition 187, which sought to discourage illegal immigration by denying noncitizens a range of public services. Last year, Hazleton, Pa., caught the nation's attention when it tried to criminalize landlords who rent to illegal immigrants and deny business permits to companies that hire them. Until recently, however, the courts stood as a bulwark against this spate of angry -- and often unconstitutional -- ordinances, ruling that immigration is federal territory.

Not anymore. In Arizona, Missouri and Oklahoma, business groups or immigration advocates sued to block the new laws, and in each case federal judges upheld them. The Oklahoma ruling is particularly pernicious. With the spirit of Dred Scott hovering over his pen, Judge James H. Payne wrote that illegal immigrants do not have the right to sue: "An illegal alien, in willful violation of federal immigration law, is without standing to challenge the constitutionality of a state law, when compliance with federal law would absolve the illegal alien's constitutional dilemma."

Unfortunately, Payne's dehumanizing tone echoes the callous treatment that too often is accorded illegal immigrants. In Roswell, N.M., an 18-year-old pregnant student was turned in to immigration officials by her high school's security officer and ultimately deported. In East Oakland, Calif., a pregnant mother was arrested at her daughter's elementary school, even though immigration officials say schools should be off-limits and pregnant and nursing women should not be arrested.

That illegal immigrants living in the United States place an economic burden on schools, hospitals, prisons and other public services is undeniable, but it's also true that they contribute to our economy and our society in myriad ways. Bullying them into leaving is counterproductive and downright mean. It's also shortsighted. Many immigrant families are blended, made up of legal immigrants, illegal ones and U.S.-born citizens. Harsh laws and deportations may satisfy the popular hunger for instantaneous immigration reform, but the result will be a legacy of anguish and resentment among millions of people who aren't going anywhere.