Get rid of undocumented people? No.

This is one of my favorite stories about how badly it can backfire when the U.S. tries to legislate against immigrants. In October 2011, Alabama passed a law to make it harder for undocumented immigrants to live and work in the state. There’s an expression called “the law of unintended consequences” that applies perfectly to how it all turned out.

MSNBC’s article, How America’s harshest immigration law failed, explains it in extremely satisfying detail, but here’s a summary. Key parts of Alabama’s HB 56 did this:

  • Landlords were banned from renting to undocumented immigrants
  • Schools had to check students’ legal status
  • Police were required to arrest people they suspected of being here without papers
  • It was illegal for anyone to give undocumented immigrants help of any kind, even giving a ride in your own personal car.

HB 56 at first made many undocumented workers move out of the state, costing businesses millions of dollars in lost revenue, such as the losses that resulted from produce rotting in the fields because there was no one to harvest it. It turned out American-born citizens were not, in fact, interested in jobs held  by migrant workers.

My favorite part of the story is that in November 2011, just six weeks after HB 56 went into effect, police stopped a driver who lacked a license or any documentation proving his status, which should have led to his arrest and indefinite detention. But the undocumented driver was an executive at Mercedes-Benz, which is one of several foreign auto companies with plants in Alabama. Awkward! After the same thing happened with a Japanese Honda worker, Alabama’s business community protested that HB 56 could gut their international commerce, so this had to stop. That’s when legislators who had supported the bill began reconsidering it, but the unintended consequences were just starting:

  • The religious community protested that the bill criminalized activities such as soup kitchens and Spanish-language services.
  • Renewing vehicle tags required proof of legal status — for everyone — so Department of Motor Vehicle services took forever.
  • Utility companies wondered if they should turn off service to people who couldn’t prove they were U.S. citizens (attorneys told them that doing so was a violation of civil rights).
  • Counties didn’t know if they should require people to show papers before they used public swimming pools!
  • People in immigrant communities stopped reporting crimes or helping the police in any way for fear that police could ask witnesses for documentation of legal status (police couldn’t).
  • Traffic stops that used to take 20 minutes now required a full background check and possible overnight stay while a person was investigated by the federal authorities.

Many lawsuits resulted and the courts struck down provision after provision of HB 56. Within two years, Alabama settled all lawsuits and accepted rulings that will greatly slow down such a law from ever passing again. For the most part, people who had left the state moved back and today Alabama’s economy and culture are pretty much the same as before HB 56.

But many people’s lives were affected in painful ways. Some lost jobs and educational opportunities. It all shows how badly things go when a community tries to get rid of “undocumented immigrants.” I put that term in quotations because I think it’s really code for certain nationalities and classes of people, such as working class Latinos, Africans, Southeast Asians and people from the Middle East. Clearly HB 56 wasn’t intended for European executives, but now Alabama has seen that it can’t target and evict people the way it wants to. So, I just don’t know why some Americans still think Trump can do it.