In June of 2011, supporters of a stringent new immigration law in Alabama hailed it as the toughest in the country, saying it put Alabama on the leading edge of a renewed crackdown on illegal immigration.
We have a real problem with illegal immigration in this country, Governor Robert Bentley said at a signing ceremony. I campaigned for the toughest immigration laws, and I'm proud of the Legislature for working tirelessly to create the strongest immigration bill in the country.
Ten months later, the federal government has sued the law and judges have blocked several of its more contentious sections, mirroring a pattern that played out in Georgia, South Carolina, and Utah - all states that enacted new immigration enforcement measures modeled on an Arizona law that prompted massive controversy. That Arizona law also invited legal challenges, and the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments on its constitutionality later this month.
Law Generates Torrent Of Criticism
As with Arizona, Alabama's law has faced a torrent of criticism, and not just from the immigration advocates and civil liberties proponents who call it discriminatory and vicious. Farmers have complained about not finding enough laborers to pick their crops, businesses complained about confusing and onerous new regulations and police officers were uncertain about what the law required them to do. The state's attorney general sent a letter to legislators suggesting revisions.
Now Alabama lawmakers are debating a new immigration law that will address those concerns, according to its sponsors. In a statement, Gov. Bentley said the new legislation would clarify the law's scope, bring some disputed provisions in line with federal law and reduce unnecessary burdens on legal residents and businesses.
The revisions we have outlined accomplish the task of addressing illegal immigration while providing the proper guidelines for adhering to and upholding the law, Bentley said.
Among other things, the new legislation would adjust penalties for businesses that hire undocumented immigrants and allows businesses to appeal to a judge. William J. Canary, the CEO of the Business Council of Alabama, said in a statement that the changes were imperfect but a much-needed step in the right direction, charging that the current law imposes unnecessary bureaucratic burdens on business.
In an email, a legal adviser to Bentley said the changes reflected some of Attorney General Luther Strange's recommendations. It defines what kind of business transactions between undocumented immigrants and state agencies are prohibited, does away with a provision that makes it a crime to rent to an undocumented immigrant and eliminates a requirement that schools to ask students about their immigration status.
But opponents of the law say the changes do not address some of the most egregious aspects of the law. To these critics, the new law doubles down on enforcement under the pretense of reform.
Despite Revisions, Opponents Say Effort Still Violates U.S. Constitution
The 2011 law included a provision requiring police officers to check the status of people they suspect to be undocumented, including during routine traffic stops. The new law only requires police officers to inquire about status when they've issued a traffic citation or made an arrest but it also allows officers to ask about the status of every passenger in the car. Opponents say the new measure fails to address legal issues and still violates the Constitution.
What's unfortunate about this bill is they claim to be trying to make it better, to make it less draconian, but they're doing the complete opposite, said Sam Brooke, an attorney who has argued against the law currently on the books for the Southern Poverty Law Center. With the police stops they've expanded its reach dramatically.
While the new bill removes contentious language that criminalized encouraging or inducing undocumented immigrants to enter Alabama, it would make it illegal to shield undocumented immigrants from detection. The current law makes it a felony to harbor or transport 10 or more immigrants, whereas the new law would bring that number down to five. Both of those changes have been lambasted by religious groups who sued over the original law.
Cooper Shattuck, the legal adviser to Gov. Bentley, said that the impending challenge to the Arizona immigration law did not influence Alabama lawmakers because legislators had begun formulating the new bill before the Supreme Court decided to take up the Arizona law.
But a three-judge panel that blocked some sections of Alabama's law has declined to act further until the Supreme Court hands down a ruling on Arizona, and some critics see the decision by Alabama lawmakers to take up a new immigration bill as an act of defiance.
For whatever reason Rep. [Mickey] Hammon, the new bill's sponsor, and other Republicans don't seem to have much appetite for waiting to get additional guidance, said Justin Cox, a staff attorney for the American Civil Liberties Union who has helped lead the challenge to the 2011 law. Frankly, it doesn't seem like they've cared much to this point whether what they're doing is legal they're going to try and do it anyway.
On a national level, there are signs that the movement towards tougher enforcement spurred by Arizona's law has slowed. Proposed immigration legislation withered earlier this year in the state senates of Virginia and Mississippi. Legislation pushed in Kansas by Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who helped conceive the Arizona law, has stalled.
Unfortunately Alabama is bucking the trend of the rest of the nation, Brooke said. This legislative session we're seeing states take up these laws and put them on hold at least until next year when we get some guidance from the Supreme Court. Alabama, though is doing the exact opposite: they're taking their old law and instead of paring it back they're piling on.