As with other difficult issues, immigration reform is an area where the political system generally fails at addressing complexity and reaching compromise, according to Lucas Guttentag, senior counsel and former founding national director of the ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project. At an event about the national implications of state-led immigration reform, sponsored by Harvard Immigration Project, Advocates for Human Rights, and ACLU-HLS, Guttentag discussed Alabama’s new immigration law, its significance for state efforts to regulate immigration, and where immigration advocates go from here.

He provided an overview of developments at the state and local level, explaining that the recent wave of state and local immigration laws have been enacted in places where there are new immigrant populations and there have not been significant populations of immigrants in many generations. In fact, extensive expenditures on border control following 9/11 and the rising expense of crossing the border have, in effect, not kept people out, but instead locked people in.

“As the border was hardened, and circular patterns of immigration were interrupted, people stayed here. Once people were forced to stay, they had kids and settled down,” Guttentag said. “The consequences of this border enforcement has been to increase dramatically the number of undocumented people in this country.”

Guttentag noted that the states and cities where strict immigration laws have recently been enacted do not suffer from higher-than-average unemployment. Nonetheless, some politicians exploit fear and xenophobia, giving the impression that immigrants are displacing Americans in jobs and educational opportunities, causing crime, and straining public services. Upon further investigation, these claims are usually disproved, but they add to the climate that leads to these laws, he said.

Strict immigration laws have been passed in Utah, Indiana, Georgia, Arizona and South Carolina, but Alabama’s law is currently the most notorious, he said. In addition to police enforcement and other tactics applied elsewhere, the law provides a slew of other mechanisms, including a not-so-subtle attack Plyler v. Doe. In that 1982 case, the Supreme Court essentially guaranteed every child the right to attend public school, striking down a state statute denying funding for education to illegal immigrants. Alabama’s law encroaches on this holding by attempting to collect data about undocumented immigrant families ostensibly for record-keeping purposes, although the effect will be to discourage those children from registering for school.

But Guttentag concluded on a hopeful note. He said that the United States handles immigration better than any country in the world, as we are genuinely a nation of immigrants. We have celebrated our diverse culture in the past, with the Statute of Liberty standing as a beacon that welcomed the immigrants who made America what it is today. Nonetheless, there have always been problems caused by racism, hostility, and the idea that the new is less desirable than the old.

“Immigrants change America, and America changes immigrants, and that’s been the glory of our system, with all of its challenges and shortcomings,” he said. “To me, the challenge is looking to those principles and fighting for those principles when it’s most difficult. Right now it’s most difficult, but it also means that it’s especially important.”