State and Local Anti-Immigrant Ordinances Backfire

In 2007, state legislators introduced more than 1,500 pieces of legislation related to immigrants and immigration.1 Many proposed laws were also introduced in local communities across the nation.2 The rise in state and local proposals was largely due to frustration at Congress’s failure to pass comprehensive immigration reform.

State and local anti-immigrant proposals have tried to prohibit undocumented children from attending state colleges; require local police to check people's immigration status; and enlist local business owners, including landlords, as federal immigration enforcers. Many of these ordinances have been struck down in court, presenting significant costs to local taxpayers.3

Though some anti-immigrant activists have argued the ordinances have been “effective” in pushing undocumented immigrants out of their communities, these laws have in fact greatly harmed these states and local communities.

For example, Prince William County, Virginia, which passed an anti-immigrant ordinance in 2007, has effectively driven much of the Latino community, including many citizens and legal immigrants, from the jurisdiction:
A vibrant Latino subculture built in Prince William County over more than a decade is starting to come undone in a matter of months.

With Latinos fleeing the combined effects of the construction downturn, the mortgage crisis and new local laws aimed at catching illegal immigrants, Latino shops are on the brink of bankruptcy, church groups are hemorrhaging members, neighborhoods are dotted with for-sale signs, and once-busy strip malls have been transformed into ghost towns.4
The negative effects of its anti-immigrant ordinance have become so apparent that Prince William County considered repealing the measure in late April, but compromised by softening its policy:
The Prince William County supervisors abolished a key part of the county's illegal-immigration policy last night by directing police officers to question criminal suspects about their immigration status only after they have been arrested.

In October, the Board of County Supervisors directed officers to check the legal status of crime suspects, no matter how minor the offense, if they think the person might be in the country unlawfully.5
Prince William County is only the latest community to regret rushing into local immigration enforcement. In September 2007, the municipality of Riverside, NJ rescinded its local anti-immigrant law:
With the departure of so many people, the local economy suffered. Hair salons, restaurants and corner shops that catered to the immigrants saw business plummet; several closed. Once-boarded-up storefronts downtown were boarded up again.

Meanwhile, the town was hit with two lawsuits challenging the law. Legal bills began to pile up, straining the town’s already tight budget. Suddenly, many people — including some who originally favored the law — started having second thoughts.

So last week, the town rescinded the ordinance, joining a small but growing list of municipalities nationwide that have begun rethinking such laws as their legal and economic consequences have become clearer.6
The economic effects come not only from undocumented immigrants leaving the communities, but from the flight of legal residents and U.S. citizens who no longer feel welcome. In Arizona, anti-immigrant ordinances have weakened an already slowing state economy and forced many immigrants, both legal and illegal, to leave the state. Experts say the diminished workforce could further hurt the Arizona economy.7

In Colorado, the state’s anti-immigrant law is costing the state millions more than it saves 8 and has had a devastating effect upon the state’s agriculture industry. The law has led to the use of prison labor on Colorado farms:
Ever since passing what its Legislature touted as the toughest anti-illegal immigrant laws in the nation last summer, Colorado has struggled with a labor shortage as migrants fled the state. This week, officials announced a novel solution: use convicts as farmworkers

Inmates who are a low security risk may choose to work in the fields, earning 60 cents a day. They also are eligible for small bonuses.

The inmates will be watched by prison guards paid for by the farms. The precise cost is subject to negotiations, but farmers say they expect to pay more for the inmate labor and associated costs than for their traditional workers.9
In addition to the legal and economic consequences of anti-immigrant legislation, state and local anti-immigrant laws have also disrupted the social fabric of diverse communities across the nation:
Legal and illegal immigrants [in Prince William County] expressed the belief -- some with sadness, others with indignation -- that the law is part of a larger effort to drive Hispanics out of the county. Santos Perdomo, 38, a legal resident who owns a business and two houses in Prince William, said he had always donated to the county police charity fund. Now, he said, he no longer feels like giving.

"Even though I am legal, I feel rejected," he said. "This law has ruined all the good feelings. When I came here 12 years ago, my neighbors sent me pies. Now they look at me differently."10
Truth in Immigration urges state and local legislators to fully consider the possible effects of anti-immigrant legislation. And we urge voters to oust lawmakers more concerned with demonizing immigrants than supporting sound policy.
1. "2007 Enacted State Legislation Related to Immigrants and Immigration." Immigrant Policy Project, National Conference of State Legislatures, January 31, 2008
2. "Local Law Enforcement Issues." National Immigration Law Center
3. Julia Preston. "Judge Voids Ordinance on Illegal Immigrants." New York Times, July 27, 2007
4. N.C. Aizenman. "In N.Va., a Latino Community Unravels."
Washington Post, March 27, 2008

5. Kristen Mack. "Pr. William Softens Policy on Immigration Status Checks." Washington Post, April 30, 2008
6. Ken Belson and Jill P. Capuzzo. "Towns Rethink Laws Against Illegal Immigrants." New York Times, September 26, 2007
7. Randal C. Archibold. "Arizona Seeing Signs of Flight by Immigrants." New York Times, February 12, 2008
8. Jeff Brady. "Colorado Finds Anti-Immigration Law Costly." National Public Radio, February 13, 2007
9. Nicholas Riccardi. "Prisoners to fill void left by migrants." Los Angeles Times, March 2, 2007
10. Pamela Constable and Nick Miroff. "Latinos Looking Over Shoulder." Washington Post, March 4, 2008

Copyright 2009 MALDEF — Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund