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At first reading, it seemed like a xenophobe’s immigration dream come true: solve all your illegal immigrant problems by getting rid of the illegal immigrants. Make their lives so miserable that they’d run back home, wherever “home” was, just to get away. “Self Deport” was the euphemism of choice; sounds better than, “run ‘em outta town.”

self deport

And so the legislatures in several states set about to do just that. First out of the gate was Arizona, which passed SB1070, officially the “Support Our Law Enforcement and Safe Neighborhoods Act,” on April 19, 2010. It was signed into law by Governor Jan Brewer (R) on April 23, 2010.

Among other provisions, the Act made it a state misdemeanor for a foreign national to be in Arizona without required documentation, punishable with a fine up to $1,000 and as much as 6 months in jail. Any person arrested during a “lawful stop, detention, or arrest” had to have their immigration status legitimized before they could be released.

What could be better?

So, in short order two dozen nearly identical bills were introduced in various state legislatures. Five passed: Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina, and Utah.

Using Alabama as an example, since its version was even harsher than Arizona’s: what happened next truly fits the definition of Unintended Consequences; perhaps better classed as Be Careful What You Wish For.

Entered into Alabama law as the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, HB 56 was co-sponsored in the Alabama House of Representatives by Majority Representative Micky Hammon (R-Limestone and Morgan counties); and State Senator Scott Beason (R-17th District), although it was mostly written by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach. The law was signed into law in June, 2011, by Republican Governor Robert Bentley.

It passed with widespread support in the legislature and was also popular among Alabamians statewide. Among its key provisions: landlords were banned from renting homes to undocumented immigrants, schools had to check students’ legal status, and police were required to arrest suspected immigration violators. Even giving unauthorized immigrants a ride became a crime. “Illegal is illegal” was the rallying cry.

What could possibly be wrong with all of this, they wondered?

As it turns out, several things; and it didn’t take long for the grits to hit the fan.

Only weeks after HB56 was jubilantly signed into law, a Tuscaloosa police officer stopped a rental car for not having a current license tag. The car was driven, sure enough, by an alien without the proper forms of identification. In accordance with the HB56 requirements, the driver was arrested and taken to police headquarters.

But the man, Detlev Hager, was not Hispanic. He was German: a 46-year old executive with Mercedes Benz US, Inc., which operates a factory in Tuscaloosa, and has since 1993. The plant builds the M-Class, R-Class, and GL-Class SUVs. It employs 4,000 Alabamians and ships $5 billion worth of these vehicles yearly, which makes up a considerable chunk of Alabama’s $165 billion GDP (25th in State rankings).

As expected, Mr. Hager complained to his employer about being arrested and held in jail until his passport and visa could be retrieved from his hotel room and Federal officials verify his immigration status.

Mercedes Benz, as expected complained to Governor Bentley. It is not known to whom Governor Bentley complained.

Twelve days after this incident, HB56 came into the headlines again when another foreigner was stopped in a police roadblock and cited, even though in this case he had the proper documents with him. But this foreigner wasn’t Hispanic, either: he was Japanese: Ichiro Yada, an executive with Honda, who was on assignment to Honda’s Alabama manufacturing plant in Lincoln, about 45 miles east of Birmingham.

The plant, Honda Manufacturing of Alabama, LLC, is a 3.5 million square foot facility, opened in 1999. It employs over 4,000 Alabamians who build the Odyssey minivan, Pilot and Acura MDX SUVs, Ridgeline light truck, and engines for several Honda/Acura vehicles.

As expected, Mr. Yada complained to his employer.

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As expected, Honda complained to Governor Bentley. It is not known to whom Governor Bentley complained.

But incidents like these were only the first trickles of a tsunami of problems caused by HB56.

The same provision that forced police officers to arrest and detain all suspected illegal residents caused problems for small town police departments. They didn’t have the resources to hold everyone they stopped who could not prove their citizenship. Compounding this was another provision of the law that gave ordinary citizens legal standing to sue police departments they felt were not enforcing the law rigorously enough.

The religious community also felt the sting of HB56. Many churches complained that the law’s ban on providing aid to undocumented immigrants would criminalize soup kitchens and even Spanish-language church services.

HB56 also began causing long lines at county and state offices. Once-simple chores like renewing vehicle license tags now required car owners to prove their legal status.

Utilities argued that HB56 required them to cut off services to anyone who could not show their immigration bona fides. Local officials were not sure who could and could not use community swimming pools.

And not all the people affected by these laws were illegal residents. Some legal residents chose to leave, believing that they also were or would be targeted; many illegal residents left and took their legal resident children with them.

Eventually, some of the “self-deportees” did return. But the damage to Alabama’s image was large, and not easy to measure in dollars. Noting that they were the “show-me state, not the show-me-your-papers state,” the St. Louis Post-Dispatch newspaper ran editorials promising Mercedes-Benz better treatment of their employees if they’d relocate to Missouri.

But Alabama’s problems only mirrored what other communities had gone through. As in Arizona, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, where similar laws were enacted, any potential economic benefits were more than offset by liabilities and costs.

So, why do it? Why pass laws that are nearly impossible to enforce, generate expensive lawsuits and court costs (most provisions of the Arizona and Alabama laws have been nullified by courts), and end up giving the state a bad reputation among other states, businesses, and visitors.

It isn’t the money. These draconian anti-immigrant laws cost states and communities far more dollars than they may save.

A cost-benefit analysis on HB56 run by the University of Alabama calculated a “least-worst” revenue loss between $1 billion and $5 billion, with the fewest number of immigrants leaving.

study done on Arizona’s SB1070 came up with similar numbers: net losses of revenue (nearly $50 billion of the state’s $247 billion GDP—18th in State rankings) and jobs if the law continued, compared with net gains if an amnesty program was put in place.


So, if it isn’t the money, is it just meanness; a chance to pick on somebody smaller than you?

If that’s all it is, it doesn’t sound like a great way to run a state.

Spoiler Alert: the idea of “self-deportation” is a joke; it was created a few years ago by cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz, who draws the comic strip “La Cucaracha.” The name of the movement’s fictitious spokesman, Daniel D. Portado, is also a joke. Think about it.

John MacMurray