Alabama and Georgia’s Anti-Immigrant Laws Head Back to Court

The federal government and civil rights groups want Alabama's immigration crackdown blocked in full.

By Julianne Hing Mar 01, 2012

Anti-immigrant lawmakers are keeping the country’s court system busy, and today will be an especially full day. In Atlanta, the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals will hear oral arguments for court challenges to Alabama’s HB 56 and Georgia’s HB 87, two state laws inspired by Arizona’s anti-immigrant SB 1070. The court battle rages on as a coalition of immigrant rights and faith groups continues its effort to repeal HB 56 in the Alabama state legislature. The primary focus is on HB 56, which is widely considered the most stringent anti-immigrant state law in the country. Since key portions of the law [went into effect]( last September, HB 56 has had devastating effects on the state. Indeed, [a report]( released this week documented what’s been long known: Alabama ushered in a wave of discrimination, racial profiling and anti-immigrant bigotry when HB 56 became law. A coalition of civil rights organizations and the federal government will argue today in separate cases that the appellate court ought to move to preserve a block that already exists on certain provisions of HB 56. They will also argue that the courts should enjoin, or temporary block, the entirety of the law while the courts determine the constitutionality of the laws. The federal government and the coalition of civil rights groups, led by the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center, have built the bulk of their case against HB 56 and HB 87 around the Constitution’s Supremacy clause, which says that regulating and enforcing immigration law is a strictly federal responsibility, and that states may not design and enforce their own immigration laws. The coalition of civil rights groups also argue that HB 56 carries within it violations of the Fourth Amendment, which protects people against "unreasonable search and seizure." This legal argument has been convincing enough for judges who’ve dealt with challenges to four state immigration laws to block the key provisions, which mandate that police officers detain and question any person who they believe may be undocumented. However, in a break from other courts, U.S. District Court Judge Susan Blackburn let that provision go into effect in Alabama. Judge Blackburn also let stand a provision that makes any contract an undocumented immigrant enters into unenforceable. Want to buy a home? Or offer services to an employer? Any such agreement an undocumented immigrant signs would be unenforceable, simply because of their legal status. Other provisions of HB 56, such as those which required people in Alabama to carry prove of their legal status on them at all times; another which required schools to track the immigration statuses of their students; and yet another which demanded proof of legal status in order to register a mobile home with the state have been enjoined. Nevertheless, immigrant advocates say, the law has wreaked havoc on the state, and done terrible damage not only to Alabama’s immigrant community but to the state as a whole. By criminalizing nearly every aspect of life for undocumented immigrants, critics of HB 56 say the state has implicitly sanctioned an anti-immigrant climate of hate. "HB 56 has really sent the message to the people of Alabama that it’s okay to discriminate against certain people," said Justin Cox, a staff attorney with the ACLU’s Immigrant Rights Project who is working on the legal challenge to the law. "So we’ve seen U.S. citizen children of Latino descent being made fun of in schools, being harassed." Cox said that in the post-HB 56 climate, private employers have attempted to exploit workers who they think may be undocumented. "They think they can get away with exploiting their labor because they think contracts are not enforceable, so they say, ‘What are you going to do, sue me?’" "It’s the pernicious sort of licensing of discrimination that even amongst private individuals that you can’t really get at legally, but it’s one of the worst aspects of the law," Cox said. To be sure, these sorts of abuses and cultural impacts are harder to defeat through just a legal strategy; the legal arguments against the state laws differ from immigrant rights advocates’ political, [moral]( and [economic]( arguments. "It’s creating the wrong symbol that is moving our state backwards, back to the old days when we had all types of discrimination in Alabama," said State Sen. Billy Beasley, a Democrat who pre-filed a bill in December to repeal HB 56. A group of faith organizations, labor rights groups and immigrant right advocates have been the most vocal opponents of HB 56. Immigrant rights groups have organized regular demonstrations to protest the law, and set up lobby days to support a repeal campaign. Activists have also planned a vigil to mark today’s court hearings, said Victor Palafox, an undocumented immigrant activist from Alabama. Democrats in the state legislature are trying to build support for a repeal effort. Even one-time supporters of the law have acknowledged that HB 56, which made it a state crime to be undocumented and criminalized nearly every aspect of life for undocumented immigrants, [could use some softening]( to deal with the law’s "unintended consequences." For Beasley and immigrant rights advocates, only a full repeal will do. "Alabama’s move forward since that period of time in our past, and this action, HB 56, is putting the wrong image of Alabama," Beasley said. Beasley said that while he has the support of his party members, the repeal has been a hard sell for Republicans, and so far no action has been taken on his bill.