This week Alabama became the first of several states that have passed draconian anti-immigrant laws to successfully defend key provisions of its law in court.
U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn found that parts of Alabama's controversial law didn't conflict with the federal government's authority to regulate immigration. That means that, effective immediately, state and local police must arrest and detain anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. Schools are required to determine the immigration status of students and provide it to district officials. And immigrants caught without proper identification can be charged with a crime.
Alabama's law is cruel and unnecessary. But the state isn't solely to blame for the legal mess. Nor is Blackburn, though her decision to allow police to enforce immigration laws contradicts those of other federal judges who blocked similar laws in Arizona and Georgia. The fact is that a significant portion of the fault lies with Washington.
Congress and the Obama administration have largely relegated immigration reform to a war of words, with each side blaming the other for the legislative inertia. As a result, states have been left to provide their own fixes by drafting what has become a national patchwork of regulations. That's hardly the way to deal with the nation's broken immigration system.
The only way to prevent states from enacting cruel and inhumane laws is for the federal government to provide a comprehensive solution — one that secures the border and deals with the 11 million illegal immigrants who are already in the U.S., as well as providing a sensible enforcement strategy to deport those who pose a threat.
Unfortunately, lawmakers have failed to muster the political will to reach an agreement, and are unlikely to do so before the 2012 election. What they might do is to take a small step on the road to rationality by reviving two key bipartisan reform efforts.
Lawmakers should enact legislation that would provide a conditional path to legalization for certain young illegal immigrants. Known as the DREAM Act, this law would provide a measure of help to those who serve in the military or attend college and aspire to work legally. And Congress should revisit the Agricultural Job Opportunities, Benefits and Security Act. That bill would allow farmworkers who are already here to legalize their status if they agree to pay a fine and continue to work in the fields for at least three years.
Washington can't keep relying on the courts to do its job. Congress and the president must step up.