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Alabama's Anti-Immigration Law Gutted

Alabama state officials have agreed to a settlement that guts most of the controversial provisions in the toughest anti-immigration law in the country.

Alabama’s House Bill 56, the nation’s strictest state law against undocumented immigrants, would be defanged after a proposed settlement between state government officials and civil rights groups. The agreement marks the latest blow to a series of state immigration policies passed since 2010 that sought to antagonize undocumented immigrants as part of a deterrance and deportation strategy.

Before the settlement, the law underwent two years of litigation, with the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals temporarily blocking several major provisions in an August 2012 ruling. The state defendants in the case included Gov. Robert Bentley, Attorney General Luther Strange, State Superintendent Tommy Bice, Community Colleges Chancellor Mark Heinrich and Madison County District Attorney Robert Broussard. The civil rights groups, listed in the lawsuit as the Hispanic Interest Coalition of Alabama, included the Southern Poverty Law Center, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Immigration Law Center. As part of the settlement, the state agreed to pay the coalition’s lawyers $350,000 in legal fees and costs. (A parallel lawsuit over the same time period pitted the U.S. Department of Justice against the state of Alabama, with U.S. attorneys arguing that Alabama's law was pre-empted by federal law. An appelate judge agreed in part, temporarily blocking six sections of the law.)

Between 2010 and 2011, some 36 states considered legislation that targeted undocumented immigrants, attempting to bar access to housing, transportation, public education and employment. But Alabama's law gained national notoreity for its comprehensiveness. When H.B. 56 passed in 2011, its sponsor told fellow legislators that the bill "attacks every aspect of an illegal alien's life,” according to the Birmingham News. Similar legislation passed in four other states -- Utah, Arizona, Georgia and South Carolina -- each criticized by civil rights groups. But now “the fever has broken,” says Clarissa Martinez, director of civic engagement and immigration for the National Council of La Raza. “People are more interested in finding constructive ways forward.”

The settlement “reflects a change in the general climate” of state legislatures, says Linton Joaquin, general counsel for the National Immigration Law Center, one of several civil rights groups that fought Alabama’s H.B. 56 in court. This change translated into more states offering limited benefits to undocumented immigrants. In 2013 Colorado, Oregon and Minnesota voted to extend in-state tuition to undocumented immigrants who graduated from the state’s public high schools. The University of Hawaii’s Board of Regents essentially did the same by passing a system-wide policy that applies to all public colleges in Hawaii. This year Colorado, Connecticut, Georgia, Illinois, Maine, Maryland, Nevada, Oregon and Vermont all enacted laws that allow undocumented immigrants to obtain driver’s licenses. North Carolina also began granting driver’s licenses to certain undocumented immigrants between the ages of 16 and 31 who are protected under the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy. 

Three years ago Arizona spearheaded a movement among states to shift immigration enforcement to state and local authorities. Arizona's Senate Bill 1070 made it a crime to not carry valid immigration papers and to apply for or hold a job in the state without valid immigration papers. It also allowed police to arrest someone without a warrant if the officer believed the person did something that would justify his or her deportation from the United States. All three of those provisions got struck down in a 2012 Supreme Court ruling, which undermined similar laws in other states, including H.B. 56 in Alabama. 

The Alabama law affected a relatively small segment of the state's population. Roughly 120,000 unauthorized immigrants lived in Alabama between 2009 and 2010, according to estimates by the Pew Hispanic Research Center. About 3.4 percent of all Alabamans were foreign-born in 2011, again based on a recent tally published by Pew.

The state's settlement -- which awaits federal district court approval -- impacts all or parts of seven sections of the law. It would lift a state requirement that schools must verify the immigration status of newly enrolled K-12 students; it would remove a ban on undocumented immigrants soliciting work; it would eliminate a provision that criminalizes either giving rides or renting apartments to undocumented immigrants; and it would strike a provision that made any contract unenforceable if one party to the contract knew or should have known that another party was undocumented. In line with the Supreme Court ruling last year in Arizona vs. United States, the state defendants agreed that Alabama police cannot hold someone during a traffic stop solely to check the person’s immigration status.

Some aspects of the law would remain. For instance, H.B. 56 prohibits undocumented immigrants from attending state universities or colleges and requires employers to verify the immigration status of potential hires using the federal E-verify program. The law also requires proof of citizenship for some interactions with the state, such as obtaining a driver's license.

The dismantling of Arizona’s immigration law is significant because the original law went farther than its inspiration in Arizona, particularly on having schools check children’s citizenship status. “Arizona was the first, but we were the worst,” says Sam Brooke, senior staff attorney for the Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala. The original law barred residents’ access to so many basic services, Brooke says, that “you’re essentially attempting to expel these people.”

J.B. Wogan is a Governing staff writer.
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