June 28, 2010
BY ESTHER J CEPEDA Sun-Times Columnist
When I consider the illegal immigration dilemma in this country, I always come back to the feeling that we just don't have enough good data on which to base sound policy decisions.
I find no bipartisan or nonpartisan authoritative reports that include a good quantified estimate of the impact of the wide variety of anti-illegal immigrant measures that have been floated either by national legislators or local governments -- all those proposed alternatives to a federal government that just hasn't gotten around to dealing with it themselves.
So here's a thought. Let's for a moment set aside any outrage or disgust that might well up when you think about the recent ban on illegal immigrants in Fremont, Neb., and consider the opportunity this presents.
Last week the townsfolk of that burg voted to banish illegal immigrants from town by requiring landlords to deny rental property to those who can't prove they are legal residents and by requiring city businesses to run database checks to catch illegal immigrants.
The Nebraska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union and a raft of other immigrant and refugee rights groups have pledged to file costly lawsuits to block the decision. They fear the new laws will create an environment ripe for every type of discriminatory mischief against anyone who merely looks like an illegal alien.
The people of this deeply divided town freely admit that the expense of defending their community against the lawsuits would cause great hardship to all its resident -- legal and illegal alike.
So why not do this, all you civil liberties groups: Stand down.
As painful and contrary to instinct as it might be, stand down. Don't file a single lawsuit, just sit back and watch.
Instead of deploying eager, fresh-faced lawyers to fight the new local laws, send in eager, fresh-faced sociologists to observe the laws' impact with a scientific eye.
What might they see?
If you're from the "illegal immigrants are helpless and downtrodden" school of thought -- which imagines that the same people who risked everything to travel from a crummy town south of the border all the way to Nebraska won't get out of Dodge and move on to the next opportunity -- then you might anticipate mass violations of civil liberties against indigent, terrorized victims who will be herded away to some scary immigration gulag never to be seen again.
But if you're like me and happen to think that illegal immigrants may be monolingual but aren't stupid, you might anticipate a mass exodus from a town that doesn't want them to some other town that might, in fact, welcome warm bodies to work at whatever jobs are available and spend their money at local businesses.
It might be a place where immigrants are assimilated and made proud Americans, regardless of their legal status, because there is hope that someday the federal government will find a way to ship back the losers and hold on tight to the stars.
That would be the beauty of rolling with Fremont's plan: We'd get to see what would really happen.
Would Fremont become a thriving, citizens-only zone that offers legal residents a safe, clean place to live and work, enjoying unburdened schools and social service agencies? A sort of present-day Mayberry, where you could take a walk at sunset without feeling threatened by unfamiliar people?
Or, would Fremont become a shadow of its former self -- a quiet town where stores close every week because there just aren't enough people to keep business going? A place where the Metropolitan Community College is no longer bursting at the seams with English-language learners, but there really aren't many students of any kind around anymore.
Or might Fremont find some bizarre but natural equilibrium, some balance in between?
I don't know, but I'd sure like to.
Let the lawyers stand down.
Send in the sociologists.