Alabama Gov Signs One of the Nation’s Harshest Anti-Immigrant Laws

Advocates warn that the state is taking a major step backwards in its long history with civil rights struggles.

By Julianne Hing Jun 07, 2011

UPDATE June 9, 2011 11:05AM ET: Gov. Robert Bentley signed HB 56 into law Thursday morning, the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice confirms. The law is set to go into effect September 1. Immigrant and civil rights groups have vowed to file legal challenges against the new law before then.


Alabama is bracing for what may soon be the nation’s harshest anti-immigrant state law after its state legislature passed an anti-immigrant omnibus bill called HB 56 last Thursday.

The bill, which has been sent to Gov. Robert Bentley, awaits his signature or veto. Bentley has until Thursday to act on the bill, which contains nearly every major anti-immigrant provision that localities and states have attempted to pass in the last few years.

Like Arizona’s SB 1070, the bill mandates that police investigate and detain anyone they have "reasonable suspicion" to believe may be undocumented. It also contains provisions that are commonplace among anti-immigrant laws: it spells out explicitly that undocumented immigrants may not access public benefits. It mandates that the state take part in E-Verify, the flawed federal employment verification system. It forbids people from hiring, harboring or giving a ride to undocumented immigrants, and, forbids landlords from renting property to undocumented immigrants.

HB 56 contains a few especially harsh provisions. Under the current bill, undocumented immigrants who enter into any kind of contract would not be able to have the contract enforced because of the immigration status. And in a new twist on the attack on immigrants’ education rights, primary and secondary schools will be required to verify the immigration status of students and parents, who will be required to go to their children’s schools to provide an affidavit. The bill also would bar undocumented immigrant students from enrolling in any of Alabama’s public colleges and universities.

The bill will in effect criminalize every aspect of life for undocumented immigrants.

"This is an Arizona bill with an Alabama twist," Alabama Rep. Micky Hammon, one of the bill’s proponents has said.

Already, civil and immigrant rights groups including the ACLU and the Southern Poverty Law Center have said they are studying the provisions of the bill and are ready to challenge it should it become law.

"It’s a sad state of affairs when lawmakers take pride in one upping another state that has now become notorious for inviting racial profiling to the state," said Vivek Malhotra, advocacy and policy counsel for the ACLU.

"Alabama’s bill goes beyond what Arizona and other states have done to invite racial profiling to the state by mandating that police investigate people’s immigration status … by basically inviting discrimination into people’s everyday lives," said Malhotra, adding that the restrictions on students’ access to education were "quite brazen," even in a landscape of increasingly harsh state immigration bills.

"Alabama is the first place of the civil rights movement," said Sam Brooke, a staff attorney with the Southern Poverty Law Center. "We have been at the forefront of advancing civil rights for the past couple decades and this is a huge step backward."

Gov. Bentley has until Thursday to respond. Should he make any amendments to the bill he’ll have to send it back to the legislature for a final approval, which is also coming up on its last day of the session this week as well.

Alabama immigrant rights groups are hoping that Gov. Bentley, who months ago gave his early support to the bill and told the legislature to send it on to his desk for his signature, uses the next few days to consider the impact the bill will have on his state.

"It’s not totally impossible that he could run out of time and this bill could die," said Caitlin Sandley, the lead organizer with the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, a social services and immigrant advocacy organization. "There’s still room for something to change."

Sandley said, though, that people were preparing for the worst, even after delivering 1,500 signatures to the governor’s office with other members of the statewide immigrant rights coalition. Sandley added that the recent midterm elections of 2010 made HB 56 possible in a way it hadn’t been in previous years.

"Our legislature has for the last five years or so been trying to pass an anti-immigrant omnibus bill," Sandley said. "Long before SB 1070, this has been a huge issue for our Republicans." Once Republicans took control of the Alabama legislature in November after running on a platform that included promises to pass harsher immigration enforcement legislation, they finally had the opportunity to pass the bill they’d been attempting to win for years.

For now, immigrant rights groups are studying the law and what they see as its many vulnerabilities to a possible legal challenge, and watching closely as every day passes. Legal challenges to Arizona and Utah’s attempts at immigration enforcement have so far been successful in the courts. Last week, the ACLU and the National Immigration Law Center and other organizations filed lawsuits against Indiana’s new immigration enforcement law and Georgia’s bill, too.

Still, Alabama remains undeterred by what seems to be an inevitable legal battle.

"It’s not common sense," Sandley said. "Our argument is why are we going to waste our tax dollars on something that’s clearly been indefensible so far."

"For us in Birmingham," Sandley said, "we’re all aware of our unique history around civil rights. The similarities and the sentiment are not lost, and are impossible to ignore."