The Damage of Anti-Immigrant Laws and Rhetoric

A Conversation with Angela Kelley

CAP’s Sally Steenland and Angela Kelley discuss the effects of harsh immigration laws and how hateful rhetoric on the campaign trail could hurt Republican candidates this fall.

SOURCE: Center for American Progress

Sally Steenland, Director for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress, talks to Angela Kelley, Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Center, about the harsh immigration laws spreading around the country, the anti-immigrant rhetoric on the campaign trail, and how faith leaders are speaking out on these issues.

Sally Steenland: My name is Sally Steenland and I direct the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative at the Center for American Progress. With me today is Angie Kelley, Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy here at the Center, and a good friend. Welcome, Angie.

Angie Kelley: Thanks, Sally. Great to be here.

SS: So let’s get right into it. I want to start off talking about Alabama. So last June Alabama passed what’s being called the harshest anti-immigration law in the nation. And it was in the headlines for weeks, but then it slipped from the news. Recently your team released a report called “Alabama’s Immigration Disaster,” and you bring the law back to national attention. Can you tell us what you found in the report and give us an update on what’s happening in Alabama?

AK: Sure. Thanks very much for having me. We tried to capture different aspects of the law’s impact in our report. And one was “so what’s the economic impact” specifically in the agriculture industry, but also foreign investment, because Alabama had been working hard to try to make itself appealing and attractive to foreign investors. And then another aspect that we looked at was what’s been the damage to both social and civil rights.

And the economic consequences have been staggering and are only going to go up. It could be that they will lose up to $10.8 billion, or 6.2 percent, of their GDP. They may lose up to 140,000 jobs. Their tax revenue, the state tax revenue, could go down by $2.64 million. Their agriculture industry is something that they depend on that brings in $5.5 billion a year, and one tomato farmer said that he’s estimating a loss of $300,000. And those are figures that are going to continue ticking up, because we don’t know fully yet, particularly for farmers, what they’re going to be able to plant next year, whether they’ll have workers there next year.

With foreign investment, we’re beginning to see contracts canceled. So for example a Spanish bank was looking to open up its U.S. headquarters in Birmingham—$80 million that they were looking to invest; gone.

The social impact, which isn’t a dollar value but incredibly meaningful, is perhaps the most poignant and frightening. On the first day after this law went into effect, you had nearly 10 percent of Latino students not showing up to school. You had mobile-home parks, where a lot of Latinos [were] living, empty. Dogs that were their family pets that had to be turned away. People literally packing and fleeing overnight. There was a hotline set up that got 2,000 calls from people desperate for information, fearful, and not knowing what they should do.

Those stories continue even if CNN and MSNBC aren’t reporting on this anymore, and The New York Times isn’t running daily stories. The harm is vast. And what we tried to do was to bring that home in the form of numbers in the report. And then we also released a series of videos called “Is This Alabama?” Go to They were produced by a Hollywood director, Chris Weitz, who has done big blockbuster films like “About A Boy,” one of the “Twilight” movies, and “American Pie.” And he also, through videos, tells the story of Alabamans and what they’ve experienced in their home state, which drives home the impact.

SS: The videos are incredibly moving and they put a face to this story. Can you just share one or two of them with us?

AK: Sure. The one that’s gotten the most hits is a farmer who’s probably in his late 50s, early 60s, a very typical Alabama stereotype. And he’s wearing a hat and flannel shirt, and you would think that the story he would tell is about how much money he’s lost. But the story that he actually tells is about the relationship that he lost. His longtime worker, whom he calls his partner in business, is Paco, and he said, “I’ve been to Paco’s house. I’ve had dinner at his table. He’s had dinner at my table. And his children I call my nietos,” which means grandchildren in Spanish. And in his terrific Southern accent, he goes on and on about the relationship and the impact of a law that tells him who he can drive in his truck. Because under the law he shouldn’t be driving Paco anywhere. And he says, “That’s the state of Alabama telling me who I can be friends with, and that’s not the Alabama I know, and it’s taking us backwards.”

So that’s one story, and there are several others. What they really represent is just a tiny fraction of what’s playing out in that state, and in Georgia, and in Arizona, and South Carolina—states that have decided to take up the anti-immigrant, myopic enforcement-only banner, and run with it. You know, the consequences of it, frankly, harm them economically, and it doesn’t stop illegal immigration.

SS: Just to go back to the farmer for a minute. It really is a very powerful story, and you think, this is probably a pretty conservative guy.

AK: Yeah. He is a Republican, actually.

SS: He’s a Republican. And when he tells it, what it sounds like is, “This is probably a guy who believes in limited government.” But yet this is really government intrusion. So you would think that a conservative view would not want the government to say, “This is who you can put in your car. This is who can be your friend. This is who can come to your house for dinner.” So is that sort of backlash picking up steam? And I just want to bring in faith leaders here, because I know that they have a role to play, and that they’ve been involved as well. So what is the faith community doing along these lines, and what do we see among ordinary, regular folks?

AK: The law really flies in the face of liberal and conservative values, and it’s not consistent with human values. It’s not consistent with the economic self-interest of these states. And those dual messages of “This doesn’t make sense for us economically, nor does it make sense for us as a people and how we should be treating each other” are messages that I think the faith community can deliver. What I think is so brilliant about the faith community is that they’re bilingual. They can talk about this from a moral and a faith perspective but also from an enormously practical perspective.

There was a conference recently that Sanford University held, in Alabama of course, looking at the law, and you had prominent Alabama pastors, bishops, and other religious leaders talking about how “This isn’t who we are. It isn’t who we are as Alabamans. It isn’t who we are as faith leaders or people of faith. It isn’t who we are as people who want to have a healthy economy.” And you had 80 pastors who signed a letter to their state leaders saying, “Enough. Let’s roll back this law.” There are faith leaders that have started a documentary series. So they’re using film as a way of communicating this dual message.

I do think, at the end of the day, Americans are enormously practical people, and I think they’re mainly pretty principled. And it is the range of voices, but most especially faith leaders, reminding them that you can be both principled and practical. And in that vein, you need to speak up against these laws. And only with that kind of moral, grounded voice do I actually think we can turn the tide.

SS: Let’s turn our attention to the Republican primaries, and the candidates, where we’ve heard from just about everybody enormously harsh anti-immigrant rhetoric that’s gone beyond just policy. It’s really been cruel and dehumanizing. Why do they talk like that? Is there a particular group of people that it’s working for, that it’s appealing to? Why do we see that happening?

AK: I definitely can’t read the minds of the Republican candidates. And if I were in a room advising them, I would suggest that they change their tone dramatically around the topic of immigration. Because it is not just a policy conversation but really about people, and it particularly speaks to the Latino community, which is the fastest-growing group of voters in this country. It is a demographic wave that is going to, frankly, overtake the Republicans.

In a way they are drinking a slow poison in how they’re alienating that community. Obviously a Latino voter is here legally, they are not undocumented. But the undocumented don’t all live in one apartment building by themselves. So undocumented people, you know, life is life. They marry, they work with other people, they have friends, they have co-workers. And an astonishing statistic is that one out of four Latino voters knows someone who’s been deported, or is in the queue to be deported. That’s an astonishing statistic.

SS: That’s amazing.

AK: Now what that speaks to are stepped-up enforcement policies by the Obama administration. But the way Republicans are playing this topic, which is not wise, is they’re associating themselves with being all about enforcement, all about deportation. And it’s hard to feel warm toward a candidate who wants to deport your cousin or who’s out to get your grandmother.

I can tell you that my family, for example, who has been here now for decades—my mother was naturalized many years ago—has become very political around this issue even though right now everybody in my family is documented and legal, because they’re speaking in this disrespectful tone. She can’t separate who we’re going to look for that doesn’t have papers. She has dark skin, dark hair, speaks with a thick accent, and you catch her on a weekend and she might look like she’s just finished picking some crops in the field. And that led her to cancel our family vacation in Arizona because she was too afraid she would be stopped and would be humiliated in front of her grandchildren, my daughters.

That conversation is happening around kitchen tables all across the country, of Latinos saying, “Whoa. I may even agree with your economic policy. I may even agree with your position on abortion. But you’re talking about me in a way that’s disrespectful.” And the depth of how tone-deaf the Republicans are is astounding. They’re making Obama’s job a lot easier.

SS: We know there was disappointment toward the Obama administration within Latino communities for not passing comprehensive immigration reform. Given how the Republican candidates are playing out, how do you see the issue of immigration playing out between now and November, given, as you just said, the fast-growing Latino voting bloc?

AK: Well you already see Romney trying to run some ads in Spanish-language press, and coming across as someone who can somehow relate to the Latino community that he’s just said he wants to deport. And certainly someone like Marco Rubio, who’s a senator from Florida and is of Cuban descent, is being talked about as a possible VP candidate. So I think that they’re going to try to do their best. But frankly, the Republican Party, particularly Mitt Romney if he emerges as a candidate, is in a very deep hole, and he can’t seem to help but continue to dig.

The Obama administration is recognizing that there has been a growing connection between how Latino voters are viewing this administration and their immigration policies, and it has tried a bit to take its heavy foot off the enforcement gas pedal. They announced, for example, last August, guidelines for who is going to be deported. They’re going to look carefully now at whether you’re someone who might be a DREAM Act student—a person who’s been here since they were a youth, has basically grown up in this country, and somebody who it makes no sense to send back to a country that they haven’t been to since they were perhaps an infant. They’re going to be looking at people who have long ties to the United States, that sort of thing, and making some very reasonable assessments as to where to execute prosecutorial discretion and where not to. They’re going to go back and open up 300,000 cases—and they’ve already started that process—and will be closing some cases.

This is all policy that sounds very technical, like, “Is anybody really paying attention?” But yes, they are paying attention, because if your family’s attorney sends an email, or makes a phone call and says, “Oh my God, José’s immigration case has been closed,” that sends a ripple effect throughout the entire Latino community. Similarly, if there are roadblocks around the elementary school and DHS agents checking papers, that word goes through the community very quickly as well.

I think the administration is trying to do what it can, and there’s more that it can do that they would still be enforcing the law but without being as heavy-handed. And so we’ll see if there’s more of that. But honestly, because so much of this campaign, like any campaign, gets down to “What’s a sound bite? What has he said?”, there is a lot of fodder there that Romney, Gingrich, and Santorum have all provided that make Obama’s job a lot easier.

SS: In terms of vetoing the DREAM Act, for instance—

AK: Exactly.

SS: By Romney—

AK: Yeah, vetoing the DREAM Act, embracing Alabama, embracing Arizona—

SS: Right.

AK: Embracing Jan Brewer, embracing a guy named Kris Kobach. Again, a lot of people don’t know who he is, but to the Latino community he is the architect of all those laws, and he’s their boogeyman.

SS: Right.

AK: So yeah, so I think that the importance of this issue will continue to play out throughout the campaign. Those people who, like most of us, follow politics and the national conversation in English-language press are going to declare the issue dead. People will say, “Oh, they’re not talking about it at all.” But if you can dig out your rudimentary Spanish and listen to Univision, or just watch the commercials, as in ’08 with McCain and Obama, there is a very active conversation going on about immigration.

SS: So let’s skip over November and look at the next four years. What should happen? What’s the smart thing to do and what’s the right thing to do? What would you like to see happen with comprehensive immigration reform?

AK: If members could vote anonymously for smart policy, it would have passed a long time ago, with a substantial majority, and I think it would look something like this: I think it would be enormously practical in dealing with the people who are here without papers, and we would set up a program where people would come forward; we would know who was here; they would pay taxes; they would learn English; we would do a background check on them; they would be able to work legally, thereby not having their wages depressed or U.S. workers’ wages depressed so everybody would be on a level playing field; and over time they would earn residency and eventual citizenship.

I think that we’re not going to be able to deport 11 million people. It would be harmful to our economy. It would also be harmful to the character of this country, so we should just deal practically with those folks.

Next part: How do we avoid more illegal immigration so we don’t have the same problem in five years? So the second part of a smart policy would be, “All right. We want people to come with visas, not with smugglers.” So we should have a flexible system that assesses, “What does our country need?”

Right now we have very small, limited numbers of visas for people to come to work, and we treat our economy as if it’s perfectly stagnant, as if the number that we need today is the same that we needed five years ago, the same that we needed 15 years ago. That’s crazy. And we need to have a much more sophisticated analysis of “What kinds of visas do we need? What kinds of jobs?” Make sure that we’re bringing people in who are filling needed job openings.

And given the wave of retirement we have—the baby boom wave has just begun, so we will have openings, and we are doing harm to our economy if we don’t have the right workers in those jobs.

The third [part]: We have the most secure border we’ve ever had now, the lowest levels of illegal immigration since when President Nixon was in office.

SS: Wow.

AK: And that’s because one, we’ve built up at the border. We’re using much more smarter technology, and we need to keep doing that. The border is also dynamic, so we need to stay on top of that and be sure that people aren’t finding creative ways to enter illegally. I actually think if they had a line, if there were visas available to them, they wouldn’t come in illegally. Who would? That doesn’t make sense.

We also need employers to be accountable, and we do need some kind of a verification system so when someone presents themselves to you and says, “I want to apply for this job,” you have a way of verifying that they’re here legally. Those things all work together. You can’t have any one of those pieces of a policy and hope that that’s going to be enough.

That would be my prescription, and we also have a lot of family members who are here in the United States illegally, they have a U.S. citizen family member, but they’re stuck in a family backlog. It would make a lot of sense to clear out those backlogs. Let’s make sure that we have families reunited in a quick way. But let’s at the end of the day be sure we’re serving our national interest and that we know who is here, and that we put them on a path to belonging here.

SS: And what you said earlier was so intriguing—if people could vote anonymously, just because it makes sense, and it’s left or right, it just makes perfect—

AK: Smart policy, right.

SS: It’s smart policy. And the fact that names and faces are attached to those votes means those people would get demonized on Fox News, or what’s the penalty?

AK: You only have to go back to 2006—which wasn’t that long ago, despite what my children would say—and 23 Republicans in the Senate supported an immigration bill that would have legalized most people who are here illegally. Twenty-three Republicans.

SS: Wow.

AK: That’s how much we’ve deteriorated and made it so that the moderate Republican, the moderate Democrat, is a relic. It’s like a dinosaur. It’s like my old cell phone that had an antenna. And so we can’t have a sensible conversation, unfortunately, because you have too many people that are afraid of a right-wing, Tea Party challenge if they’re sensible on the issue. Think Sen. [Bob] Bennett from Utah, for example. Sen. [Orrin] Hatch, who shed his pro-immigration policies a decade ago, and this is an issue he’s afraid of because of the emergence of the far right.

The John McCain that I knew in 2006 could talk about this issue without his face turning red and declaring that the border is unsafe.

SS: Yeah.

AK: The Ted Kennedy, who’s sadly passed away, could knit together that kind of left-right coalition and drive a legislative product that both sides were proud of. And it’s those kinds of leaders that we need to have back. Until then, I actually do think that the responsibility sits on the Obama administration to examine its immigration policies, examine the role of police in enforcing immigration law, and the ways that’s making us less safe because people are afraid to report crimes. What is a threat? Who means to do us harm? Who are people with criminal records? Let’s go after them. But for the other folks, I don’t think it serves anybody’s interest to be targeting them for removal.

SS: I’ve got one last question for you. You were talking about 2006, and when immigration reform legislation almost passed, you were there, and then it didn’t. So you’ve been doing this work either as an advocate or as a service provider for quite some time, and it’s been a rollercoaster. It’s had its moments of triumph. It’s certainly had a lot of heartbreak. So why do you do this work?

AK: That’s such a great question. I do this work for a couple reasons. One is because I was privileged enough as a young lawyer to represent mainly Central Americans, some African refugees, who came to this country, and who had endured extraordinary pain and hardship and tragedy, that I couldn’t have survived a day, and they were surviving years. And they inspired me. They taught me courage. They taught me character. And so they became my North Star, and that’s just how my compass points.

The second is my own family’s story. My grandfather sent his six daughters to this country, and they were lucky enough to come legally because he believed in the character of this country and the promise that it holds, and that’s something that I firmly believe in and I want to fight for.

And then the last, I guess, you know, I’m a mother. I have two daughters who are 11 and 15, and they get this issue, they’ve grown up with it. My kids could do roll call votes on the Senate floor. They would call me from home and ask me how somebody voted. And I think it’s for them, because I want them to see the world—the way they see it now isn’t about whether somebody’s gay or straight, whether they have papers or they don’t. I mean they can’t believe that there was a time that black and white people couldn’t marry. And so it’s really for them. I need to leave the world better for them and that they feel an obligation to leave the world better for their kids.

SS: Amen. Thank you so much, Angie.

AK: Thank you.

Sally Steenland is Director for the Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative and Angela Kelley is Vice President for Immigration Policy and Advocacy at the Center for American Progress.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.


Sally Steenland

Director, Faith and Progressive Policy Initiative

Angela Maria Kelley

Executive Director, Center for American Progress Action Fund; Senior Vice President, Center for American Progress