Thursday, June 03, 2010

My HB 1205 Testimony

I never did get to deliver it, because it was clear at the hearing that the bill was going to fail after the first round of the Committee's questioning of Rep. Harrison, who authored the bill. And that was fine by me, since the whole purpose of my testimony was to kill the bill. But since I didn't deliver my testimony then, I'd like to publish what I would have said here on The Huck Upchuck. Here it is:

Testimony of James D. Huck, Jr., Ph.D.
Thursday, May 27, 2010

Thank you Mr. Chairman and Committee Members for giving me the opportunity to testify before you this morning. My name is James Huck and I am a Board Member of Puentes New Orleans and an administrator and professor at Tulane University in the Latin American Studies department.

I would like to testify in opposition to HB 1205.

But I would also like to make clear that my testimony does not, in any way, represent the position of Tulane University nor the Stone Center for Latin American Studies at Tulane University with regard to this bill. I am speaking only for myself as a private citizen whose work within the university context and within the community has informed my opinion.

My opposition to this bill comes out of both principled and pragmatic concerns.

In terms of principle, I oppose this bill out of a concern that its main purpose is to target not those who are in violation of current immigration law, but primarily those law-abiding citizens whose lives may intersect with undocumented immigrants in the context of community service.

Citizens who take an interest in serving their fellow human beings out of a sense of neighborliness, civic responsibility, or simple kindness should not be dissuaded from serving their community, however that community is constituted. This legislation, regardless of its intent, will dissuade such behavior. It will create a society grounded in fear and uncertainty where doing a good deed like giving shelter to an undocumented relative in dire straits who shows up unannounced on your doorstep, runs the potential risk of financial penalty or prison time. How could it not induce anxiety about doing the right and moral thing? In fact, that is precisely this legislation’s point. And imagine the heartbreak this situation may pose. What would you do? Would you turn away such a relative? Or would you invite that relative in, knowing that if your charity is discovered, you could pay a hefty fine or spend time in jail?

At another level, this legislation runs counter to the values of community service and civic responsibility that we should want to see much more visibly in citizens. We should not want citizens to disengage from the realities of their communities out of fear; but to engage them in a spirit of collaborative civic-mindedness. Of course, you are all probably well aware of these philosophical and moral arguments; but I would like to just point out at the practical level that this legislation throws the baby out with the bathwater. There seems to be very little thought given to the potential practical and residual damage to the State of Louisiana, damage that will have direct negative impacts on the economic and social health and well-being of the state, its citizens, and its institutions. Let me focus on the practical effects of this proposed legislation in the area of higher education, which comes directly out of my own experience.

A few facts:

(1) Tulane University has received more than 40,000 undergraduate applications for admission this coming Fall. Preliminary data seem to indicate that this represents the single largest application pool for a private University in the entire United States. I hear repeatedly from prospective students and parents that Tulane’s commitment to community service and the incorporation of a public service graduation requirement is a unique attraction of the University. The fact is that a significant number of Tulane students undertaking community service work for local community organizations who likely serve undocumented populations. What do you suspect will happen to these student service learners if there is even the hint of the possibility that such community service may place such students in jeopardy of violation of the law that this bill seeks to codify? If this bill becomes law, what do you think institutions like Tulane will feel compelled to do in order to protect its students from even the remotest possibility that their community service – their community service – of all things, may place them in jeopardy of fines and criminal prosecution?

(2) Just off the top of my head, I can tell you that two undergraduate Honors theses, at least one Master’s term paper, and one doctoral dissertation, just this year, came from research that involved engagement with and interaction with the Latino population, many of whom I am certain were undocumented. If this bill passes, what do you think would happen to this research and scholarship if there was even the remotest possibility that such interaction with the undocumented migrant population may result in heavy fines or prison time?

(3) Tulane University is currently partnering with the Hispanic Apostolate to provide classroom space for its ESL program, which has also served as a public service placement option for hundreds of its undergraduate students over the years. What do you think would happen to this partnership if there were even the remotest possibility that the provision of space for an ESL program that may serve an undocumented immigrant population could be construed as the harboring of such undocumented migrants?

What we might see is a precipitous fall in student interest in Tulane, not out of a lack of appreciation for the value of a Tulane education, but out of a fear that the community service portion of their education might get them in legal hot water. What we might see are institutions like Tulane retracting its resources from service to the community for fear of running afoul of this law or for fear of subjecting its students to the possibility of running afoul of this law.

And I could go on, raising this very same point about community service projects at high schools and elementary schools that may place students, teachers, and counselors in contact with a population that poses risks for them. My point is that this proposed legislation will have far reaching consequences that transcend just the goal of curbing illegal immigration. It penalizes charity, it conditions neighborliness, and it disincentivizes civic engagement. It cultivates both suspicion of our neighbors and fear of doing good by them. It makes us run away not only from one another, but also from our communities as they happen to be constituted.

Being frustrated with the Federal Government’s insufficient response to the immigration situation of our country is understandable, but to use law abiding citizens, their civic proclivities, and their inherent goodness towards their neighbors as bait is not the appropriate response. Nor is threatening to punish citizens and civic-minded institutions themselves for their inherent goodness and their civic engagement. I respectfully submit that HB 1205 is a bill that does all of these things. It is a bad bill, and I urge all Committee members to vote against it. Thank you.

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