Inalienable Rights: The Tide is Turning

Photo by Student Immigration Movement via Flickr

By Samuel Tsoi

In the context of years of paralysis in Congress, states have taken addressing our dysfunctional immigration system into their own hands.  There has been a rising tide of “attrition through enforcement” legislation, most notably enacted in Arizona and Alabama. This “self-deportation” strategy aims to make life so hard for unauthorized immigrants that they have no other options but to flee. In Alabama, local police are allowed to detain individuals suspected of being undocumented. Parts of the law, later repealed, even rendered going to school and attending church risky decisions and assisting undocumented immigrants potentially illegal.

Indeed, thousands of immigrants, legal or unauthorized, have left those states. This is happening despite significant decline of national unauthorized entries over the years as border security intensified and the economy suffered. Meanwhile, nativist strategists and special interests groups such as the private prison industry are cheering.  However, this cynical strategy is backfiring.  The chief supporter of Arizona’s bill was voted out of office in a special election, and a recent University of Alabama study shows a upward of $10 billion in lost revenue for its state due to the exodus of immigrants, criminalization of work, loss of consumer activity, and stigmatizing everyday interactions between people.   These indicators suggest that this is not only bad for the economy and civility, but damaging to overall morale in such a fragile moment in our history.

Voters are re-energized in Arizona and elsewhere, ready to flex their political muscles against this strategy.  Bloggers, media professionals and activists are re-injecting humanity back to the conversation around immigration.  In the last few months alone, a reversal is being felt in legislatures across the union. Many lawmakers, rejecting the disruptive and economically self-effacing methods, are instead advancing pragmatic, uplifting and forward-thinking measures. One such proposal, tuition equity, is leading the way in turning the tide.

For years, over a dozen states as politically diverse as Utah, Texas, Connecticut and California have already chosen to grant equal access to public colleges and universities for undocumented students as their citizen and legal permanent resident classmates.  The educational, economic and social impacts have been overwhelmingly positive.  These states are generating additional tuition revenue and students are pursuing their dreams. Now, Colorado, Hawaii, and Florida are taking significant steps toward passing in-state tuition bills, acknowledging the urgent need to compete in a globalized innovation economy by leveraging the skills and drive of immigrant youth to build their home-states.

Alas, Massachusetts is still caught floating without proactive direction. The eight year-long campaign for tuition equity in Massachusetts still has a shot this year.  With broad support from business, faith, and education sectors, Beacon Hill must prioritize economic competitiveness and opportunity for young people and overcome fear-mongering and political wrangling. This would soon be put to the test. A self-deportation-esque proposal is being considered by the Judiciary Committee at the end of February – one that would make tuition equity even harder to achieve for hundreds of hard-working Massachusetts students.  Senate Bill 2061 was filed in response to headlines that portray immigrants as threats, even though empirics prove otherwise.  It could make lives of immigrants, or others perceived as immigrants more difficult in community-police relations, the workplace, and even the DMV – and we thought the experience of getting a driver’s license can only get better.  Creating an inhospitable environment for people is not a solution, harnessing talents and dreams is a better way forward. Let’s self-deport fear before we erode our human capital and welcoming heritage.

Samuel Tsoi is a Policy Associate at the Mass. Immigrant & Refugee Advocacy Coalition

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