Last week, I traveled with several of my House of Representatives colleagues to Birmingham, Ala., to speak out against HB56, a deeply regressive and dangerous law that threatens the livelihood and civil rights of citizens, visitors, and especially immigrants, whether documented or undocumented.

The law doesn’t just require police who “reasonably suspect” someone of being an undocumented immigrant to check their status. It also directs school districts to check the immigration status of every student at every level of education. It even prohibits landlords from renting to someone who may be an undocumented immigrant. It creates an intentional climate of fear well beyond any attempt to make the community safer or more prosperous. It’s already tearing the state apart.

At a field hearing in Birmingham, my colleagues and I heard testimony from Mayor William Bell, Jefferson CountySheriff Mike Hale, and Birmingham City Schools Superintendent Craig Witherspoon, as well as a local civil rights advocate, a teacher from a local high school, a concerned parent, an undocumented immigrant from Tuscaloosa, a 17-year-old student with undocumented parents, and a local business owner. They told us one thing, loud and clear: Alabama won’t survive if it goes much further down this path.

I heard stories I’ve heard many times before – stories that never fail to affect me. Parents too scared to go to work because they fear being detained; victims of domestic violence too scared to report their abuser; mothers too scared to take their children to the doctor; fathers too scared to go to the grocery store to buy food; and children too scared to go to school because they fear they or their parents will be questioned.

I know these stories well because before Alabama’s HB56, there was Arizona’s SB1070. There is no upside to these measures. They don’t make anyone safer, and they certainly don’t create jobs. What’s happening in these states, and across the nation, is part of a divisive strategy pursued by demagogues for short-term political gains. By spreading fear and encouraging discrimination, over-reaching state laws – which have already cost Arizona $141 million in lost business and will do the same to any state that follows its lead – attack the very principles that make our nation strong.

The Republican refusal to enact fair and responsible comprehensive federal immigration reform has done heavy damage to our society. Alabama stands to lose $2.8 billion if it were to deport all 120,000 undocumented immigrants, according to a study by the Immigration Policy Center. But the true cost of these laws is far greater that.

Anti-immigrant laws cost America its soul.

Current immigration law and enforcement policy is failing its most vulnerable citizens, including U.S.-born children of undocumented immigrants. When I was in Alabama, just such a person – I’ll call her Y.J. – testified to our delegation that “since the law passed, our lives have changed. I see how stressed and worried my parents are. One of the hardest and saddest things we’ve had to do was to make a plan for what our family will do if my parents were deported. [. . .] The choices my parents face are impossible choices. Why should they have to make a decision between our education or keeping our family together?

Y.J. is a junior in high school, an honor student and an asset to her community. In the United States of America, in the twenty-first century, no hard-working teenage student should be making contingency plans in case her parents are torn from her and deported. She should be focusing on her studies and preparing for college. Y.J. brought to light the fact that even citizen children are afraid of being out in public, and the stress this law causes everyone regardless of their own immigration status.

Laws like HB 56 and SB1070 won’t just economically bankrupt us. They’re already starting to morally bankrupt us.This is not the way a modern nation treats people.

As we deal with the many immigration challenges facing us, it is essential to begin and end every policy discussion by respecting the dignity and humanity of communities, families, and children that are most affected. We’re not doing that. Too many states, counties and cities are falling prey to the illusion that these laws mean jobs for “the rest of us.” They don’t. We can either put a stop to it now or after our economy is even further in ruins. We’re the only ones who can make the choice.