Nation's toughest anti-immigrant law now gutted

Extreme GOP law -- even telling public schools to check kids' status -- mostly defunct under settlement

Published October 30, 2013 3:17PM (EDT)

                     (AP/Alan Diaz)
(AP/Alan Diaz)

Two years after signing what he called “the strongest immigration bill in the country,” Alabama Gov. Robert Bentley has reached a proposed settlement with civil rights groups that permanently bars the state from implementing key provisions.

“It’s a significant victory,” National Immigration Law Center general counsel Linton Joaquin told Salon Wednesday. “It’s basically wrapping up and mostly putting to rest what was one of the most extensive immigration laws that we’ve seen passed by states in a very long time.” In contrast, Gov. Bentley’s press secretary Jennifer Ardis emailed, “The essence of Alabama’s immigration law is that if you live or work in Alabama, you should do so legally, and that has not changed.”

The settlement declares the state “permanently enjoined” from implementing several provisions that courts had previously temporarily blocked. Among the enjoined provisions: language restricting day laborers from seeking work (“violates the First Amendment”); language requiring public schools to check students’ immigration status (“violates the Equal Protection Clause”); and language making it a crime not to register your immigration status, to solicit work while undocumented, or to rent a home or give a ride to an undocumented immigrant (“violate the Supremacy Clause” of the Constitution).

The groups bringing the suit agree to dismiss their claims about four sections of Alabama law regarding law enforcement stops and detention, based on the State of Alabama agreeing that they interpret those sections “to neither require nor authorize state or local law-enforcement officers to stop, detain, arrest, or prolong the detention of any person for the purpose of ascertaining that person’s immigration status or because of a belief that the person lacks lawful immigration status” and that language about denying bail only applies to those “arrested for a capital crime …”

NILC’s Joaquin said the Alabama law “had all the bad provisions of Arizona basically, and on steroids,” and had initially led to “massive dislocation and fear,” including “major vacancies caused by fear of the school provision” and “police run amok.” Asked whether the police-stop provisions of the law – narrowed in interpretation but not enjoined under the settlement – would still lead to increased stops, Joaquin answered, “If they do, those stops can be challenged … Were a locality to act contrary to the state’s interpretation, that can be challenged.”

The Associated Press reported Tuesday that Alabama had also filed to settle a similar suit by the federal Department of Justice; the AP wrote that “The school checks never occurred because of legal challenges, and many immigrants who initially fled the state in fear of arrest under the document check provision returned to Alabama.” Coalition of Immokalee Workers co-founder Greg Asbed and former Kellogg Food & Society fellow Sean Sellers wrote in the Nation in 2011 that by leaving provisions of the Alabama law in place, a federal ruling “spurred frantic midnight evacuations, as immigrants fled rural towns across the state, leaving a trail of abandoned homes and businesses.”

In a Tuesday statement, other organizations behind the suit joined NILC in celebrating the settlement. The ACLU’s Immigrants’ Rights Project director, Cecilia Wang, said the order “gives firm assurance that all Alabamians are on equal footing,” and pledged that “Law enforcement agencies throughout Alabama are on notice – if they detain anyone based on suspicions about immigration status, they will be violating the U.S. Constitution and we will take swift action to protect people’s civil rights against such violations.” Advocates noted that courts have also blocked states including South Carolina, Georgia and – most famously – Arizona from moving forward with new laws targeting undocumented immigrants. Plaintiff Maria D. Ceja Zamora said she was “thankful that most of the law has been permanently blocked and that tranquility has been restored to the Hispanic community.”

By Josh Eidelson

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Aclu Alabama Arizona Education Gop Immigration Law Republicans Robert Bentley