Alabama passes harsh law restricting immigrant rights

Following in the footsteps of states like Arizona, Georgia, Utah, and Indiana, Alabama has become the fifth state to pass harsh anti-immigrant laws within the last year. HB 56, also known as the Beason-Hammon Alabama Taxpayer and Citizen Protection Act, was passed into law on June 9. However, Alabama is the first state where some of the worst provisions of this legislation have actually gone into effect.

HB 56 is a law modeled after Arizona’s notorious SB 1070, which sparked a nationwide resistance and economic boycott in 2010, costing the Arizona tourist industry an estimated $100 million. Before HB 56 was scheduled to take effect on Sept. 1, the Department of Justice issued a challenge to the law, which has been widely recognized as the harshest state immigration law on the books.

On Sept. 28, U.S. District Judge Sharon Lovelace Blackburn returned her ruling on the controversial law. Judge Blackburn blocked certain parts of HB 56, including a provision that would have made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to enroll in state colleges and universities, provisions that criminalized day laborers’ and undocumented immigrants’ attempts to look for and get work, and a provision that would have made it illegal to give a ride to or harbor an undocumented person.

However, Judge Blackburn also upheld some of the worst sections of HB 56, arguing that states have the right to enact their own immigration laws covering areas overlooked by federal law, an unusual decision. Blackburn refused to enjoin one of the harshest parts of the law, a provision that gives police and other law enforcement agents the power to detain and question anyone whom they have a “reasonable suspicion” may be undocumented.

This is the first time that such a provision, which is widely acknowledged to promote the use of racial profiling among police officers and other agents, has been allowed to stand. Blackburn also let stand provisions of the law that require all K-12 schools in Alabama to track the immigration status of their students, and that make any business contract entered into with an undocumented person null and void.

“Today is a dark day for Alabama,” Mary Bauer, the Southern Poverty Law Center’s legal director, said in a statement. “This decision not only places Alabama on the wrong side of history but also demonstrates that the rights and freedoms so fundamental to our nation and its history can be manipulated by hate and political agendas—at least for a time.”

Laws such as SB 1070 and HB 56 are part of a wider philosophy known as “attrition through enforcement.” This strategy was the brainchild of the Center for Immigration Studies (CIS), which claims to be an impartial research organization but which is actually associated with FAIR, the oldest and largest anti-immigrant organization in the United States. FAIR and its associates are often quoted in the mainstream press. Its directors often testify in Congress, and its ideas have often been accepted by politicians on both sides of the aisle.

“Attrition through enforcement” is essentially the idea that the immigrant population is largely made up of dangerous drug smugglers and criminals who are here to “steal” Americans’ jobs. They pose a “security risk” to our nation and must be dealt with accordingly. This idea serves to foster a feeling of anti-immigrant xenophobia in the general population and has often been used to justify the use of extremely harsh measures against undocumented immigrants.

Laws such as HB 56 and SB 1070 and ICE Access programs such as Secure Communities are meant to make life so difficult for immigrants that they live in a constant state of fear. This makes it easier for employers to control and exploit an already vulnerable immigrant workforce, and it makes it even harder for immigrant workers to stand up for their rights. In this light, it is interesting to note that Judge Blackburn chose to enjoin the provisions of HB 56 that would have made it illegal for undocumented immigrants to look for or accept work.

Since HB 56 has gone into effect, there have been reports of large numbers of immigrants pulling their children out of school or leaving the state; with no one to harvest them, crops have been rotting in the fields. According to one report, 50 Alabama farmers recently met with three legislators to beg them to make emergency changes to the law, citing the fact that they could lose millions of dollars worth of crops if there is no one to pick them. Meanwhile, the fear in the immigrant community continues to grow and spread in the weeks following its enactment.

Since HB 56 took effect, a coalition of civil rights groups including the ACLU, the National Immigration Law Center, the Southern Poverty Law Center, and the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama filed an emergency request with the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to block some of the harshest provisions of the law from going into effect.

On Oct. 14, the appeals court granted an emergency stay of two of the most severe provisions of the law. At least temporarily, public schools in the state will not be allowed to track the immigration status of their students, and it will no longer be considered a crime for a person not to be carrying proof of their immigration status with them. However, with provisions such as the one allowing law enforcement agents to question people regarding their status still in effect, many predict that it is likely that this issue will eventually reach the Supreme Court.

HB 56 is only the tip of the iceberg, and it is clear that more states will soon follow suit with similar laws. With a philosophy like “attrition through enforcement” in play, more than a legal injunction is needed to stop this most recent wave of anti-immigrant legislation. However, local community organizing groups like the Alabama Coalition for Immigrant Justice, Alabama Dreamers for the Future, and many different local churches have observed an increasing outpouring of regional and national support for the movement against HB 56 in Alabama.

“What’s happening is a continuing growth of the civil rights movement,” said Scott Douglas, director of the Greater Birmingham Ministries. “Back then [during the heyday of the civil rights movement] it was people in the black church [who were] involved, and the white church was silent. This time, there are black churches, brown churches and white churches saying ‘not in our names.’”

While no official boycott of Alabama or similar long-term organizing strategy has yet been announced, it is this kind of solidarity across artificially constructed borders and racial lines that will eventually help defeat HB 56 and other anti-immigrant laws. 

> The article above was written by Lisa Luinenburg, and first appeared in the November 2011 print edition of Socialist Action newspaper.

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