Alabama’s HB 56 was already the harshest state immigration law in the nation. But in the waning hours of the state’s 2012 legislative session and above the din of protestors’ interruptions the state passed a revision to HB 56 on Wednesday which took new steps toward making life for the state’s immigrants even more difficult. HB 658, the revision bill, is now on its way to Gov. Robert Bentley’s desk.
HB 658 preserved many of the most heinous provisions of HB 56, including provisions modeled on Arizona’s SB 1070 which are held up right now in a Supreme Court challenge. Despite months of attempts and near daily rewrites to the bill in an effort to refine the language of HB 56, the new law left intact provisions that compel law enforcement officers to question anyone who appears to be undocumented. The state also left intact the provision that bars undocumented students from any public institution of higher education in Alabama, and mandates that K-12 schools gather data about the immigration statuses of students and their parents. A provision which requires private employers to adopt E-Verify, a worker verification database that’s ostensibly designed to crack down on bosses who hire undocumented workers, was unchanged.
On Wednesday, lawmakers also passed a bracing new provision which calls for the state to create a public, searchable database which includes the name and personal information of any undocumented immigrant who appears in Alabama state court for any reason. Immigrant rights advocates have taken to calling it the “scarlet letter” provision because it would unfairly brand immigrants.
In other instances, provisions like one that makes it illegal for undocumented immigrants to rent property, were modified, but only in ways that serve to strengthen the rest of the law as a whole.
“Our worst fears were confirmed today,” said Luis Robledo, an organizer with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, who spoke with Colorlines just after the Senate vote. “It’s just a monster. [Lawmakers] doubled down and made it worse for the community.”
The scarlet letter provision in particular encapsulates the driving ethos of the rest of HB 56, say experts. “I can’t figure out a legitimate public interest that it serves,” said Justin Cox, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project who was in the statehouse observing proceedings on Wednesday. “I don’t understand what they hope to achieve with it other than making people so uncomfortable in their homes than they have to move.” That impulse has a name: lawmakers and immigration restrictionists call it “enforcement through attrition,” whereby a state makes conditions so harsh and unlivable for immigrants that they leave the state on their own, or as some refer to it, “self-deport.”
“I really believe this came from the determination of some members of the leadership of the legislature to make HB 56 even more discriminatory and even more cruel,” said Olivia Turner, the executive director of the ACLU of Alabama.
According to many watchers, it wasn’t supposed to happen this way. Prior to the legislative session and facing national outrage and fallout over HB 56 last year, Gov. Bentley and even other Republican politicians acknowledged that HB 56’s “unintended consequences” needed to be addressed. HB 56 reminded other Republican lawmakers too much of Alabama’s sordid civil rights history, they said. But when it came down to the wire, Sen. Scott Beason, who authored the original HB 56, was able to command enough support to back his plan.
The days leading up to Wednesday’s vote were a flurry of activity and backroom deals, say advocates. The version of the update that the Senate voted on yesterday had only been sent out the previous day, Turner said. “They are just shoehorning this bills in, and there’s been no due deliberation or even time for a proper reading and comprehension of these bills.”
Indeed, just before the Senate moved to a cloture vote on Wednesday, Senate Democrats asked that the bill be read out once in full. It passed, 20-7. The House concurred hours later.
Police arrested protestors from a group called Alabama’s Conscience who blocked the hallways leading to Senate and House chambers in an attempt to delay the vote. After the Senate vote, protestors sang and chanted in the hallways, their hymns and shouts filling the building for hours.
“Legislators are not listening to their own constituents,” said Victor Palafox, an immigrant rights activist. “They’ve been ignoring every person coming through this statehouse showing their opposition to the law.”
“If they’re not going to listen to prayer, to chants, to rallies, then they’re going to listen to us as we break and defy an unjust law.”
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gov. Bentley had vetoed the bill; he has not done so and so far not taken any action on it.