Op-Ed: The Great Es-Scape: Are States Cracking Down On Undocumented Immigration Because Of Unemployment?

By Mariel Beasley, Staff Editor

A federal appeals court finally blocked parts of Alabama’s controversial immigration law this past week, a temporary pause on the September 28th federal ruling. Various parts of the legislation were originally upheld, including the requirement for schools to check the immigration status of students and parents. This resulted in parents pulling thousands of children out of the schools, fearing that teachers had become INS agents. Advocacy groups have even referred to the event as a “humanitarian crisis.” The block will temporarily stop requiring schools to collect data on citizenship status, but still requires police officers to attempt to determine citizenship of anyone they “reasonably suspect” to be undocumented during traffic stops. But frankly, the damage has already been done. Children have been pulled out of school and are unlikely to return.

Now, let’s look closely at those states that have passed particularly stringent immigration laws. Justice Department attorneys have already sued Arizona and Alabama and are considering lawsuits against Utah, Georgia, Indiana and South Carolina. While this might look like a rag-tag group of states, I think there’s a method to this madness:

- In all six states, the Republican Party controls the state government (legislature & governor).

- Four of the states have unemployment rates above the national rate of 9.1%. The exceptions are Indiana and Utah.

-Only Arizona and Georgia have a disproportionately high percentage of undocumented immigrants, compared to the national rate of 3.7%. In fact, South Carolina, Indiana and Alabama fall far below that rate.

-In four of the states, undocumented immigrants make up a substantially larger share of the labor force than their actual percentage of the state’s total population. This difference could mean a larger perceived population. The exceptions are Indiana and South Carolina. The only other states with a comparable difference are Florida and Texas, where conservative Latino voters are crucial.

I can’t help but wonder if these laws are specifically intended to cast undocumented immigrants as scapegoats in battles over hurting economies and high unemployment rates, shifting blame from legislators.

The following table shows the unemployment rate, the percentage of the population that are undocumented immigrants, and the percentage of the labor force that are undocumented immigrants for all states in which both the legislature and the executive branch are controlled by Republicans. The states are in descending order according to their unemployment rate. The states in red are those for which the Justice Department has filed or is considering filing a lawsuit.


Immigration data via Pew Hispanic Center


Looking primarily at the unemployment rate, and then at the percentage of undocumented immigrants in relation to the labor force, I’d guess that we will continue to see equally harsh laws from Michigan (the House is currently considering a bill), Tennessee, Idaho, and maybe even Ohio. All four of these states are either at or above the national unemployment rate. In Tennessee and Idaho, almost 3% of their labor force are undocumented immigrants. It’s a much lower percentage in Michigan and Ohio, but if the unemployment rate is high enough, it’s possible that those states will still push for stricter laws, which Michigan currently is in the process of doing.

As for Alabama, perhaps they are killing two birds with one stone, indirectly limiting the “public benefits” that undocumented immigrants receive. This could be the next contagious phase in immigration laws if the injunction is lifted. However, leaving large segments of the population without a basic education or access to healthcare is not an adequate or humane response to immigration.


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