Streams

New Allies in Battle Against Controversial Ala. Immigration Law

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Alabama passed one of the most severe and stringent immigration laws in the nation last June. It requires public schools to check students’ immigration status, mandates that immigrants carry papers at all times, criminalizes granting rides or renting to undocumented immigrants, prohibits courts from enforcing contracts with those immigrants, and makes it a felony for undocumented immigrants to transact business with the government. HB 56 also instructs law enforcement officials to demand papers from anyone they stop and suspect to be in the country illegally.

The bill has spurred lawsuits from religious leaders, the Obama administration, and civil rights organizations. The latest courtroom development Friday had the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in Atlanta issuing an injunction, which temporarily blocks parts of HB 56.

So public school teachers and administrators do not have to check their wards’ immigration status and immigrants will not be charged for walking without sufficient identification—for now. Police officers can still ask for documentation, courts are still barred from enforcing contracts made with unauthorized immigrants, and these immigrants can be charged with a felony for doing business with the state.

Michael Innis-Jiménez, a University of Alabama professor and expert on Latino and Labor issues, believes that the remaining provisions are problematic. He said people “can get profiled and pulled over for almost anything.”

He is troubled most by the contracts provision.

“Any contract between an undocumented immigrant and anyone else is automatically void and unenforceable," he said. "If you sign a rental agreement it is void. If you sign a loan agreement, a mortgage, a title loan, or an employee contract, they are all void and unenforceable."

Since the law bars any public office from conducting business with undocumented immigrants, it will be difficult for them to get basic services.

"This means immigrants can't get tags for their cars," said Innis-Jiménez. "Some local governments are also interpreting this as a prohibition to hook up water, sewer, or electricity service for immigrants.” 

What can be done to counter Alabama’s immigration law other than going to court?

Some immigrant advocates have called for boycotts. A consortium of Spanish-language radio stations instigated a one-day protest last Wednesday to prove that Latinos are crucial to Alabama’s economy. A Facebook page called on Latinos to unite and “bring Alabama economy down (sic).” Reports indicate the one-day protest led some poultry plants and businesses to close, but only had minimal economic impact.

Even if opponents of HB 56 are able to muster a protracted boycott of the state, it is highly unlikely that the law will be knocked down completely. Despite concerted action against Arizona’s controversial immigration law which cost the state its reputation and hundreds of millions in lost revenue, the law still stands, albeit with a partial injunction, as it winds its way to the Supreme Court.

Its also unclear if boycotts have staying power. The National Council of La Raza, the nation’s largest Latino civil rights and advocacy group, called off the nationwide protest last month and Arizona was recently chosen by NFL owners to host Super Bowl XLIX.

Innis-Jiménez thinks Alabama's harsh law will be seriously challenged only when non-immigrant Alabamans feel burdened by HB 56. They are the ones, not the small number of Latinos in Alabama, who can pressure elected officials to change course and possibly even repeal the law.

He gave the example of Alabama’s business and agricultural communities, which for the most part remained silent while the legislators were crafting the legislation. These interests are only now becoming vocal opponents, as they see their bottom lines getting slashed by the law, which has scared Latino laborers—authorized and unauthorized—out of the state.

Ordinary citizens are also starting to be inconvenienced. In the most populous county in the state, residents are suffering longer than usual queues at courthouses due to HB 56 and budget cuts. Budget shortfalls have resulted in the closing of courthouses, just at a time when many more residents must flock to them, required to verify residency to buy or renew their driver’s licenses or car tags.

Alabama’s experience is not unique. Other states, like Arizona and Georgia, that passed harsh immigration laws inadvertently inflicted externalities upon their non-immigrant residents.

Innis-Jiménez predicts that eventually, non-immigrants in Alabama will witness the negative fallout of this law. A decrease in the number of public school students for instance, will lead to decreased federal funding. Multinational corporations that value diversity and employ immigrants will think twice before setting shop in states like Alabama.

Change will occur in Alabama, “not out of concern for human rights, but out of inconvenience,” said Innis-Jiménez.

You can follow Erwin de Leon on Twitter or read his blog. Feet in Two Worlds is supported by the New York Community Trust and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, with additional support from the Mertz Gilmore Foundation and the Sirus Fund.

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