The South Deals With Immigration

The South – where discussions about race and ethnic relations long focused primarily on blacks and whites – now has become the battleground on immigration.

It is in the South where the nation’s most controversial state-level immigration laws have been passed and kicked into high gear the perennial national debate over what to do with the estimated 12 million undocumented immigrants living in the United States.

Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, South Carolina and Utah have enacted laws aimed at cracking down on illegal immigration. The U.S. Supreme Court has heard arguments on Arizona's controversial 2010 immigration law – which criminalizes being in the country unlawfully, and set the stage for other states to consider passing their own immigration measures – and is expected to rule by the end of June.

The court is determining whether Arizona's attempt to fix its border problems is trumped by federal law.

So on Monday, conservatives and liberals, Democrats and Republicans, political leaders, police and business owners are scheduled to gather in Atlanta for what organizers are billing as the “first-ever Southeast summit on immigration.”

Though the participants and speakers hold diverse perspectives on many issues, they apparently support a reform of U.S. immigration policy that would include a way for certain undocumented immigrants to legalize their status.

A statement by the National Immigration Forum, which is organizing the summit, said a mission of the gathering is “to develop a common understanding of the value of immigrants and immigration to the Southeast and to the country as a whole, and to renew calls for federal action.”

The summit topics will cover such things as the role that immigrants play in the Southeast economy, and their importance to the future of certain industries, and the impact of the deputizing of local police as immigration agents on the relations between police and immigrant communities.

Speakers at the summit are to include Republicans such as former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who served under President George W. Bush, Jeb Bush Jr., the son of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, Utah Attorney General Mark Shurtleff, who hosted a similar summit in Utah last year, and Paul Bridges, mayor of the Georgia town of Uvalda, who joined a lawsuit against Georgia’s law aimed at cracking down on undocumented immigrants.

Other speakers scheduled at the one-day summit include Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, Archbishop Thomas Wenski of Miami and Karen Bremer, director of the Georgia Restaurant Association.

A federal judge has put parts of Georgia’s law on hold, including provisions allowing police to check the immigration status of people without proper identification. But other aspects of the law went into effect this summer, such as making it a felony in Georgia to use false information or documentation when applying for a job.

Bridges says that migrant workers have rapidly disappeared in the state. When the state laws are coupled with federal immigration programs such as Secure Communities that have increased the number of deportations, legal and illegal immigrants are reluctant to work, he says.

“Some of the workers don’t have legal documents and some of them do. But the enforcement-only laws scare all of them,” Bridges said. “Someone here legally doesn’t want to work in a field or ride in a van with somebody illegal, because it could force them to defend themselves in court” if they’re lumped in with the undocumented workers.

Proponents of state anti-illegal immigration laws say the failure of Congress and the White House to crack down on people who enter and stay in the country illegally forces local officials to take matters into their own hands.

They reject claims that certain industries would be doomed without immigrant workers because Americans won’t do some jobs.

“They’re using immigration as a political football,” said Dan Stein, who heads the Federation for American Immigration Reform, or FAIR, a Washington D.C.-based group that favors strict immigration enforcement. “They’re insulting the middle class and the poor in this country by saying Americans aren’t good enough to do jobs in this country – from engineering to harvesting fruit to waiting on tables.”

The impact of new laws has been immediately evident in Georgia, where the agricultural industry estimates it has lost at least $300 million and as much as $1 billion since laws targeting illegal immigrants were passed earlier this year.

In Alabama, whose immigration law is termed the strictest in the nation, the impact of the measure is expected to be between $2.3 billion and $10.8 billion in annual gross domestic product on the assumption that some 60,000 undocumented workers would leave the state.

In Idaho, lawmakers have backed away from passing their own immigration laws, in part because of the potential impact on the state’s agricultural businesses. That is preferable to passing laws that are not “well thought out,” said Brent Olmstead, a lobbyist for the Idaho Business Coalition on Immigration Reform.

Many summit participants support an approach to immigration such as that taken through a package of bills passed in Utah that included an enforcement law modeled on Arizona’s but balanced by a program that will allow undocumented immigrants to work and pay taxes in Utah if they register with the state.

The law does not protect them from federal prosecution; the state is looking for a federal solution before the law goes into effect in 2013. Federal law prohibits employers from hiring undocumented immigrants.

The Utah guest worker program was a key component of the Utah Compact, an initiative pushed as a more compassionate way to handle immigration.

This story contains material from The Associated Press.

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