‘This American Life’ Episode Reveals the Human Consequences of Alabama’s War on Immigrants

By Isabella Acosta-Rubio, a Spring 2012 intern

With an estimated 11 million unauthorized immigrants living in the United States, the dialogue around developing a national strategy for immigration reform has been extremely polarized. Immigration advocates call for comprehensive immigration reform that provides a pathway to citizenship for those already living within our borders, while the other side touts a zero tolerance, “round ‘em up” solution. But after hearing a radio broadcast by This American Life called “Reap What You Sow,” I discovered that now there is a third proposal that goes even further than ever imagined.

Formally called “attrition through enforcement,” the idea behind bills like Alabama’s H.B. 56 is to make life so difficult and unpleasant for undocumented immigrants, that their best way out is to self-deport. Alabama’s bill goes beyond Arizona’s S.B. 1070, authorizing the Department of Homeland Security to maintain its own immigration police force to detain or even arrest anyone that they suspect is undocumented. H.B. 56 interferes with everyday life, and even requires immigration status verification in schools.. What is more, anyone who breaks this law by helping an undocumented immigrant in any way will be penalized.

Kris Kobach, the Kansas Secretary of State and mastermind of attrition through enforcement, argues that this is better from the “alien’s perspective” because they can depart freely, making it less costly for the United States and for them since they don’t ever have to be in custody. All they have to do is go. But what about the separation of families, chaos in schools, loss of entrepreneurship, and most of all, the increasing racial discrimination against Latinos?

One of the stories on the radio program involves a 12-year-old girl named Stephanie whose school held a mandatory assembly threatening Mexican kids with deporting their families.

“They started talking about how they’re going to take illegal Mexicans out of school,” Stephanie said in an interview for This American Life. “They were talking about that if they do take our parents, we’re OK, because they could send us to Mexico with them. Almost everybody was crying”

The consequences go far beyond this, with thousands Latino children kept out of school because of their frightened parents. Not only is this bill designed to terrorize the Latino community widely seen as the toughest in the United States, but according to recent studies, it was estimated that up to 80,000 jobs were vacated by undocumented immigrants fleeing the crackdown, costing Alabama’s economy up to $10.8 billion. The lost jobs also cost Alabama up to $264.5 million in lost state sales and income taxes, and as much as $93.1 million in lost city and county sales taxes.

The Alabama law is widely considered by many civil and human rights and immigration advocates to be the most draconian law in the nation. As a result of such concerns, a coalition of national civil and human rights and worker rights organizations is calling for foreign investors in Alabama to join them in urging the Alabama State Legislature to repeal H.B. 56. Due to the hostile environment and shattered expectations that H.B. 56 has created for foreign-owned business, it is hoped that many companies will add their voices to this vital call.