Days after the Alabama legislature voted to update a stringent immigration law considered among the toughest in the nation, Governor Robert Bentley has called for a special legislative session to address his concerns with the law.
Bentley lauded the initial law as the strongest immigration bill in the country at a signing ceremony in June of 2011, but it quickly spurred a deluge of criticism from businesses who said it imposed overly harsh penalties for hiring undocumented workers, civil liberties advocates who condemned measures related to law enforcement -- including one authorizing police officers to demand the immigration status of people they detain at routine traffic stops -- and police officers uncertain about their new responsibilities.
The Department of Justice sued, and federal judges have enjoined several provisions (judges are suspending further action until the Supreme Court hands down a decision on the Arizona immigration law that provided a template for Alabama's version). Alabama Attorney General Luther Strange sent a letter to lawmakers in December suggesting amendments to the law that could preclude more legal challenges.
Lawmakers in Alabama's House of Representatives responded by crafting a new version of the bill that addressed some of those concerns, but their counterparts in the Senate changed the bill to keep some of the more controversial measures intact. The Senate version also added a measure requiring the state's Department of Homeland Security to publish the names of undocumented immigrants who pass through court, whether or not they are convicted.
In a news release, Bentley said that requirement could be counterproductive and take away from the focus of the original law and urged lawmakers to make changes.
The governor also took on a highly controversial aspect of the bill requiring schools to ask children about their immigration status. That provision was also in the original bill and has been enjoined by a federal court, with critics saying that it would scare immigrant children away from school and violate their constitutional right to an education.
The essence of the law must remain the same, and that is if you live or work in Alabama, you must do so legally, Governor Bentley said in a statement. We must make sure that final revisions to the immigration law make the law more effective, help promote economic growth, ensure fairness, and provide greater clarity on the application of the law.
Republican Rep. Micky Hammon, one of the the updated bill's sponsors, told the TimesDaily that the governor's suggestions were not likely to find a receptive audience.
The changes he's asking for are not important changes at all, and I don't think they have any chance of passing the House and Senate, Hammon said on Thursday. Our major concern is getting the governor to sign the bill we passed.
The Alabama Senate version erased many of the reforms sought in the bill that emerged initially from the House. It eliminated a provision affirming that religious organizations would not be punished for helping undocumented immigrants, and it did away with a measure in the House version that allowed judges to waive mandatory penalties for businesses that knowingly hire undocumented immigrants.
Immigrant advocates have also condemned a piece of the new bill that expands the traffic stops measure in the original. Under the new legislation, police officers can only inquire about immigration status during a traffic stop if they have issued a citation or made an arrest -- but now they can ask about the status of every passenger in the car, not just the driver.