The Obama administration is stepping in yet again to challenge a state immigration law, this time for the most far-reaching anti-immigrant state law yet, Alabama’s HB 56.
In its highly anticipated lawsuit filed late Monday, the Department of Justice said that Alabama’s recently passed HB 56, which is set to go into effect on Sept. 1, is in violation of the Constitution.
“[T]he United States Constitution forbids Alabama from supplanting the federal government’s immigration regime with its own state specific immigration policy—a policy that, in purpose and effect, interferes with the numerous interests the federal government must balance when enforcing and administering the immigration laws and disrupts the balance already established by the federal government,” read the complaint.
“Today’s action makes clear that setting immigration policy and enforcing immigration laws is a national responsibility that cannot be addressed through a patchwork of state immigration laws,” Attorney General Eric Holder said in a statement.
“The department is committed to evaluating each state immigration law and making decisions based on the facts and the law. To the extent we find state laws that interfere with the federal government’s enforcement of immigration law, we are prepared to bring suit, as we did in Arizona.”
HB 56 is the latest in a series of anti-immigrant laws that have been modeled after Arizona’s SB 1070 and passed by state legislatures. Utah, Indiana, Georgia and South Carolina have all passed versions of Arizona-inspired laws that have been challenged by civil and immigrant rights groups in the courts. So far, judges have uniformly blocked the most controversial provision—one that gives law enforcement officers the right to investigate a person’s immigration status if they have “reasonable suspicion” to believe the person is undocumented—pending resolution on the constitutionality of the provision.
Yet, Alabama’s HB 56 was the harshest law of them all. Not only did it expand law enforcement officers’ powers to enforce immigration law, it seemed to bring together every restrictionist provision that states and localities had considered or attempted to pass in recent memory. HB 56 barred undocumented immigrant children from attending K-12 schools by forcing schools to record and verify the immigration status of anyone who wants to enroll in Alabama public schools, in what seems a clear violation of the Supreme Court’s interpretations of the Constitution. The law also made it a crime to rent property to, employ or even give a ride to an undocumented immigrant. Under HB 56, no undocumented immigrant could enroll in any of Alabama’s public colleges or universities. Because of the harsh and potentially illegal education provisions, the Department of Education has joined the Department of Justice in challenging parts of the law.
“All we’re doing is increasing the enforcement of the federal laws that they’re not doing,” said Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley in response to the DOJ’s lawsuit, Alabama’s WKRG reported.
“We’re certainly thrilled that the DOJ has also filed suit,” said Caitlin Sandley, the lead organizer with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, an immigrant advocacy and social service organization. “We’re not surprised though, in part because Alabama’s law is so much further reaching than any of the other state level immigration laws so far.”
In its complaint, the DOJ argues that even though the federal government “welcomes cooperative efforts by states and localities to aid in the enforcement of the nation’s immigration laws,” creating and enforcing immigration law is the sole responsibility of the federal government. The DOJ also argues that Alabama’s attempts to step in and manage the flow of traffic in and out of its own state interferes with the federal government’s own enforcement priorities.
The harsh anti-immigrant state laws the DOJ has challenged may violate the Constitution, but many of the federal government’s own programs have had a similar impact on immigrant communities. And states that have taken the lead in passing anti-immigrant laws have been enabled by the federal government.
While HB 56 is tangled up in the courts—the federal government’s challenge marks the fourth lawsuit against the bill, for those keeping count—immigrant communities in Alabama are preparing for the worst.
“It’s already changed the climate on the ground. The immigrant community both documented and not is anxious about whether all of this goes into effect, or parts of it do, or even none,” said Sandley. “The thing is, HB 56 affects such a broad swath of people. Public schools are anxious about the new mandates, business is worried, so are landlords and law enforcement.”
Whatever the outcome of the lawsuits, if lawmakers’ intent was to terrorize immigrants, HB 56’s already been successful.
Sandley said that since the passage of HB 56, HICA has seen an overwhelming number of clients coming in to prepare an emergency plan, designating other guardians for their U.S.-born children in the case of their deportation, granting powers of attorney, applying for passports for their kids—“all the things people do if they’re preparing for deportation or preparing to return to their home country.”