A surprising ruling by U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn, which upholds most of Alabama's controversial immigration law HB56, calls into question the meaning of the words inscribed on the face of the U.S. Supreme Court building: "Equal Justice Under Law." The 11th Circuit Court will now hear an appeal. But while our nation waits for the courts to decide whether it is legal to require the police to check immigration status based on a subjective standard of suspicion, let's consider also whether it is sound policy.
I live in the only jurisdiction in America that has ever implemented such a law. Here in Prince William County, VA, the "Probable Cause Mandate" was on the books for eight weeks in March and April of 2008. I didn't just watch it happen. I filmed it. The story of how the law came to be, and the surprising grassroots coalition that arose to help repeal it, is captured in a film I co-directed with Annabel Park called 9500 Liberty. (9500 Liberty will be available on Comcast video-on-demand during the month of October as part of a series called "Cinema Asian America" along with an earlier film of mine called Charlotte Sometimes — only $3 as I understand.)
The most radical provisions in Arizona's SB 1070 were blocked by federal courts in July of 2010, meaning that any further attempts to pass this law would first require millions of dollars in legal fees. In part for this reason, only Alabama and Georgia followed Arizona's lead after zeal for the law erupted all over the U.S. But there were a host of other reasons why the only jurisdiction in America to actually TRY this law ended up repealing it after only 8 weeks.
From talking to numerous elected and appointed officials in Prince William County government (including many who had originally voted for the law), the "Probable Cause Mandate" was repealed because it was damaging to the county's economy, its housing market, and its reputation, all of which made it more difficult to attract new home owners, new investors, and new business owners. At the height of the controversy, Prince William County's home foreclosure rate was 5 to 7 times the average for the region, so high in fact that George Mason's Center for Regional Analysis had to redesign their charts.
But the biggest reason for the policy's repeal was that the Bush Justice Department had put the county on notice that the federal government planned to join the first law suit filed by a county resident who could prove that his or her Constitutional right to equal protection under the law had been violated, not by the misconduct of a police officer, but by an unprecedented legislative mandate being dutifully followed. This would have meant county taxpayers would have to foot the bill for court challenges that would have likely have gone all the way up the Supreme Court. That's millions of taxpayer dollars down the tubes, and we haven't even gotten into the cost of implementing the law.
As seen in the film, the Chief of Police was forthright with the Board of Supervisors. Although he never publicly opposed the law, he explained to the Board from the beginning that if his officers were going to be pulled off of public safety duty in order to do immigration enforcement, he would need to hire additional officers in order to maintain the level of public safety the county then enjoyed (crime had been falling for 15 years — the same years, by the way, during which the immigrant community had quadrupled).
For this and many other reasons — such as renting additional jail space from neighboring jurisdictions — the law was very expensive to implement. Original estimates topped $14,000,000 over five years, and as those estimates began to climb, the Republican Board of Supervisors began to have second thoughts about the tax increases that would be necessary to pay for them (as it was, the tax rate increased by 25%). Thus, the law was repealed on April 29, 2008 with only County Chairman Corey Stewart protesting. The film documents how he refused to come out from the back chamber for two hours once he realized he'd lost the support of the 5 Republicans and 2 Democrats who sat with him on the Board. (By the way, Stewart's opponent for County Chairman in this November's election is Babur Lateef, whose family immigrated from Pakistan).
Considering the negative economic impact, and the costly legal challenges that the law made likely, the only argument in favor of it was the misconception that immigrants and undocumented immigrants are more likely to commit crimes. Based on national statistics, many suggested at the time that this claim was false. And, during a hearing before the United States Commission on Civil Rights (in which I testified), the Chief of Police showed that the crime wave being described by the Chairman and his supporters on political blogs was a fiction. But more importantly, it was proven later when county crime statistics came out, not only showing that undocumented immigrants were committing crime at a lower rate than legal residents in the county — it also showed that the controversy and social unrest caused by the short-lived and very costly policy may have been a factor in reversing the 15-year trend of falling crime rates. That's right. They passed and implemented this law and crime went up. After the law's repeal, the crime rate resumed its downward trend.
A closer look at county crime statistics shows a slight uptick in crime during the period of controversy, despite under-reporting in categories like domestic violence and aggravated assault. The Prince William County Citizen Satisfaction Survey showed a steep drop in trust in law enforcement, especially in the Latino and African American communities during this period. Law enforcement experts have since explained to me that people of color feel less comfortable contacting the police in general, and that political controversies that undermine best practices such as "community policing" only make matters worse. As any good law enforcement official will tell you: it’s very hard to solve a crime if it’s never reported. And if it is reported, it's harder to solve if witnesses refuse to come forward. Thus, everyone is less safe in communities where trust in law enforcement has been compromised.
The “probable cause mandate” and the culture war surrounding it caused many people to leave the county, destroying property values, deepening the county’s home foreclosure crisis, and compounding the global economic meltdown that was only beginning at that time (July 2007). Business owners and developers, meanwhile, were hesitant invest money in a county that was constantly in the headlines for political instability and racial upheaval. All of this added up to plummeting revenues, and the aforementioned tax rate increase of more than 25% percent.
Alabama lawmakers are aiming for a similar fate. I hope that their elected officials will be willing to look at best practices studies, and find a more practical, less costly, and less damaging response to anxieties caused by immigration. They might be wise to contact elected leaders in Prince William County, VA to learn what happened when the a very similar law was put in place.
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Coffee Party began when Annabel Park updated her Facebook status with a "rant" about divisive, inaccurate political rhetoric. Our goal is to use people power and new media to reign in corporate influence, and usher in a new era of participatory democracy.