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Federal-State Tug Of War: Drawing The Lines In Immigration Overhaul

Maria Lola Melisio, 18, entered the U.S. illegally with her mother when she was 7. Now she's an undocumented resident living in Alabama, which has one of the country's toughest immigration laws.
Debbie Elliott
Maria Lola Melisio, 18, entered the U.S. illegally with her mother when she was 7. Now she's an undocumented resident living in Alabama, which has one of the country's toughest immigration laws.

Inside a modest storefront in Loxley, Ala., 18-year-old Maria Lola Melisio points out the Mexican spices and other products for sale in her mother's market.

"There are the leaves where you make your tamales — you roll them up in that," she says.

Melisio has long dark curls and is wearing a houndstooth scarf in support of the Alabama Crimson Tide. When she was 7 years old, she entered the U.S. illegally from Mexico with her mother, and still has a scar on her back from crawling under the border fence. It's a story she's kept secret until now.

"We shouldn't have to be embarrassed," Melisio says. "It's really not my fault that I came here illegally. I really didn't know anything."

She says her mother wanted a better life, "so we could have a future."

Tension Between State And Federal Law

Now, Melisio finds herself caught between state and federal immigration policy.

Alabama's immigration law is often billed as the toughest in the country. In recent years, other states have passed similar legislation intended to curtail illegal immigration, at times running afoul of the U.S. Constitution.

But with President Obama's re-election, an immigration overhaul is now back on the national agenda, with calls from both political parties to address the large numbers of undocumented immigrants who call the U.S. home.

In the wake of Alabama's law, Hispanic-owned businesses closed, and farmers complained they couldn't find enough migrant workers to harvest their crops.

Like Arizona, Alabama's law calls for police to detain suspects on a reasonable suspicion that they are in the country illegally. But Alabama went further, making it a crime for undocumented immigrants to conduct any matter of business, whether private or with government agencies. The law also required schools to collect information on the immigration status of enrolling students and their parents.

Melisio dropped out of the 11th grade when that measure passed last year. It was only intended to apply to new students, but her mother was too afraid to send her to class.

"She thought that the police would come to school and try to find out who was illegal, and they might send me back," she says. "She was scared, and she didn't want me to go."

Even after courts struck down Alabama's school provision, Melisio says she was ashamed to return. Now, she needs a high school diploma to qualify under Obama's policy that allows young illegal immigrants to avoid deportation if they go to college or work. She's trying to get her GED just over the state line in Pensacola, Fla.

Highly Contested State Laws

Civil rights advocates say laws like Alabama's have created a host of problems, while neglecting to really address the question of illegal immigration.

"They do infinitely more harm than good," says Tomas Lopez, an attorney at the Southern Poverty Law Center, one of several groups that have sued to stop the state laws.

Trying to drive people out of the state is "not the way to deal with the really complicated questions that are tied up in immigration policy," Lopez says.

Supporters insist the laws are working.

"I think we did what we intended to do," says Republican state Sen. Scott Beason, a sponsor of Alabama's immigration crackdown.

"We did see apparently thousands of illegal aliens leave the state," Beason says. "It did open up jobs for a number of Alabamians, which was really our main goal."

Beason acknowledges he's become a "lightning rod" in the debate, and has experienced pushback from fellow Republicans who complain the law has made it more difficult to do business in the state.

"There are a lot of business interests who like to be able to have that never-ending flow of illegal labor," Beason explains. "And that's been the tug of war within the Republican establishment for a while."

Beason says he's surprised to now hear national Republican leaders embrace a softer approach in an appeal to Latino voters.

"It seems to me more like petty pandering is what they're trying to do," Beason says. "Instead of telling people this is why: because we want to have better jobs; we want to have opportunity. And to do that we cannot just have completely open borders with millions of people streaming into the country. Let's have that argument."

At least 10 states have passed these new immigration rules. The most comprehensive statutes come from Alabama, Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina. All have the same underlying goal.

"The concept of attrition through enforcement," says Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, a key architect of the immigration laws.

"If state and local government can add their shoulders to the wheel and help to increase the total amount of enforcement," says Kobach, "that will change the cost-benefit analysis of your typical illegal alien who says, 'You know what, it's getting harder for me to work illegally in the United States. It's getting harder for me to get these public benefits, and I'm going to go home.' "

'Fiscal Burden' On States

But courts have ruled that states have only a limited role to play — that the Constitution leaves immigration policy to the federal government.

Here's what states can still do: mandate that employers use the national E-Verify system to check workers' Social Security numbers; authorize police to detain and check the immigration status of suspects; and deny public benefits to undocumented residents.

Kobach says that even as the debate moves to Washington, D.C., he will continue to work with states and local governments to find new avenues to curtail illegal immigration.

"The other factor we have to remember here is that the fiscal burden of illegal immigration falls overwhelmingly on the states," he says. "Indeed, illegal immigration can be said to be the ultimate unfunded mandate."

At Jackson Hospital in Montgomery, Ala., Dr. Randy Brinson says emergency rooms like the one here are the front lines when it comes to the public cost of illegal immigration. He says they treat a lot of migrant workers.

"When they come to the emergency room, we don't check their immigration status, we just know it's someone who is sick," says Brinson. "So the reality is they come in, we take care of them, and we very rarely get compensated for their care."

Brinson, president of the Christian Coalition of Alabama, says the cost is often passed along to local governments. He thinks the immigration debate in Alabama has missed the point, and harmed the state's already battered image when it comes to civil rights.

"It had the negative effect that we were against immigration, we were against Hispanics in particular, and that we weren't concerned with the plight of illegal immigrants in our country," Brinson says.

He thinks the solution is creating a path to citizenship and legitimate work with adequate housing, fair wages and family health care benefits.

"Not in the underground, but in the open light," Brinson says. "So that they don't become a burden on the state government or the federal government."

Brinson says as both parties maneuver to attract Latino voters, the social costs of immigration policy shouldn't get lost in the politics.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR National Correspondent Debbie Elliott can be heard telling stories from her native South. She covers the latest news and politics, and is attuned to the region's rich culture and history.